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Whether you love or hate Zack Snyder — and for the record, we lean towards “love” with some healthy reservations — it’s impossible to deny that the man is distinctive. When you watch a movie Snyder directed, you instantly know that he was the visionary behind it. (Or, in one instance, you instantly know that he didn’t actually direct this one, and then you start a campaign to get the powers that be to release the Snyder Cut.)
One of Snyder’s best films, the Spartan epic 300, is now streaming on Peacock. It seems as good a time as any to rank all of the director’s films from worst to best. Because Snyder tends to provoke a passionate response from both his fans and his critics, there’s a slight chance that this ranking might ruffle some feathers, but we think it’s fair-minded. And, worst-case scenario: If the trolls and the negative commenters block out the sun, we will rank in the shade.
9. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Zack Snyder has a very clear idea of what he thinks superheroes are and what he thinks they should be. To Snyder, superheroes are gods, the stakes are always high, and there is a somber weight to everything they do. It is a perfectly valid interpretation, but it actually works against Snyder’s strengths. Despite some edgelord tendencies, he is at his best when he is being earnest. Even when he’s filling the screen with violence, there’s a clarity of purpose in most of Snyder’s successful work.
BvS has no clarity whatsoever. It builds off of the mistakes that Snyder made with Man of Steel (more on those in a bit) and largely ignores that film’s limited strengths. It is a mess, a movie that shoehorns in a Justice League’s worth of characters in a ham-fisted attempt to fast-track a cinematic universe to compete with the MCU. For that alone, BvS was doomed from the start, though Snyder doesn’t do the movie (or himself) any favors with this ugly, convoluted film that seems to forget the “super” part of Superman’s name and culminates with the two heroes realizing their moms have the same name.
8. Sucker Punch (2011)
Batman v Superman is probably Snyder’s only flat-out bad movie. He has others that are, perhaps, not good, but there’s something to admire or at least investigate in them all. Take, for instance, Sucker Punch, a genre-mishmash that both sexualizes and empowers its female characters and turns mental illness into a video game. It doesn’t really work, and it’s not nearly as deep as it thinks it is (or if it is, it’s deep in the wrong way), and yet Sucker Punch is such an intriguing statement. It's Snyder with no guardrails, and while it’s oddly fascinating to see Snyder’s unrestrained id on full display, maybe there’s a reason he typically adapts properties rather than creates them.
7. Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (2010)
This is a perfectly passable family movie geared towards tweens who like fantasy epics and animals (it is a rich, rich subgenre). The problem is that it’s called “Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole,” and even though that’s not Snyder’s fault and indeed comes from the successful book series published by Scholastic, it’s still just absurd. Snyder tries admirably, but he can’t quite square the seriousness of this avian warfare with the fact that all of his characters are CGI owls wearing helmets. Legends of the Guardians is maybe the least Snyder-y Zack Snyder movie, and the relative lack of his signature touch makes the inherent oddness of the premise and visuals feel even more confounding. It’s fine for what it is — it’s just hard to really give a hoot.
6. Man of Steel (2013)
There is a great Superman movie inside Man of Steel. Henry Cavil wears the cape well, the score is incredible, the movie’s take on Krypton is exciting, and above all this movie captures, fleetingly, the majesty of Superman in the moments where he transcends what we humans can do and takes to the sky. To borrow the tagline of another Superman movie, we believe a man can fly.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot about Man of Steel that prevents it from soaring. Snyder’s so grounded by his desire to make Superman serious — or worse, realistic — that his cynicism invades an otherwise moving film. You can tell dark stories about Superman (see: The Dark Knight Returns), but Snyder’s poisoning a franchise-starting origin story with this darkness. Forget that he kills the bad guy — Man of Steel creates a scenario where the world would be better off if Superman straight-up did not exist. With the exception of though scenes where he takes flight while Hans Zimmer's score builds, Man of Steel doesn’t give the audience much else to believe in, which is especially weird since it makes several unsubtle comparisons between Superman and Jesus. (They’re both 33!)
5. Army of the Dead (2021)
Army of Dead peaks early, as the montage of the undead takeover of Los Vegas is a campy, gory, silly, and visceral delight — and, like the openings of Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen before it, a masterclass in conveying both plot and tone. The rest of Army of the Dead is somewhat burdened by having to be a “real” movie instead of vignettes of Zombie Elvis getting obliterated by a toppled Eiffel Tower replica, but Snyder’s clearly having a ball as he shoves a heist movie right down the rotting throat of a zombie flick.
4. Watchmen (2009)
Watchmen was thought to be unfilmable for a long time, and the fact that Snyder managed to not just make a competent adaptation of the legendary graphic novel, but a good one, is something of a thermodynamic miracle. There are times when Snyder’s style and Alan Moore’s original material don’t necessarily mesh well. Snyder keeps making his heroes into badasses, while Moore’s characters were, at their core, deeply messed-up and sad in more ways than one. And, yes, the movie should’ve had the courage to go with the dang squid. But for all these quibbles, the sheer number of plates Snyder had to spin at once to get Watchmen to work as a film is astounding, even if some spun too faithfully to the comic while others wobbled unnecessarily. And, the opening credits, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” are perfect.
3. Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
The theatrical release of Justice League, despite being credited to Snyder, is not his movie. It’s a Frankensteining of his vision, studio notes, and Joss Whedon's tonally opposite style. So, instead, we’re just ranking the once-mythical Snyder Cut, which it turns out… is actually pretty good. In contrast to BvS, which had so much forced grittiness and setup, The Snyder Cut gives the director plenty of time to tell his story at his pace, and as a result, there is something alluringly earnest about it.
And, we do mean plenty of time. At four hours long, Zack Snyder’s Justice League feels more like a miniseries than a proper movie. That time, though, lets him really expand on themes and develop his characters. There’s a lot of your typical Snyder flash in Justice League, but the runtime lets him organically put meaning behind his artifice. His sense of grandeur and slow-motion gravitas isn’t just for show when he has the space to put something behind it. In other words, that typical Snyder flash isn’t all there is to Snyder’s Flash.
2. 300 (2007)
Don’t think too hard about 300, a movie based on an acclaimed but somewhat problematic graphic novel that’s a funhouse mirror reflection of real Peloponnesian history. At its core, 300 is not about politics or the moral arc of history. 300 is about dudes rocking harder than they’ve ever rocked before. The hyper-stylized, “looks-just-like-a-comic” aesthetic of 300 would soon be done to death, but it’s still dazzling to look at, and the fights — not to mention all of the quotes — are still a hypermasculine thrill.
1. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
There is something that’s both perfectly formed and primal about Snyder’s debut film, a remake of George A. Romero’s zombie magnum opus. It’s too early in his career for Snyder to have his own “brand” yet, and that helps Dawn feel exciting and new. And yet, at the same time, it’s a perfect showcase of his skills, visual tricks, and storytelling sensibilities. You could compare it to the terrifying, fast and brutal zombies in the movie: As soon as Snyder got a chance to sink his teeth into something, it sprung to “life” and did exactly what it needed to with chaotic and ruthless efficiency.