Justice League (2017) promotion poster (IMDB)

Zack Snyder, Matthew Arnold, and Ancient Stories in Comic Book Films

Does it make sense for contemporary Superman to stand beside ancient Zeus in comic book films? Filmmaker Zack Snyder and 19th century poet and critic Matthew Arnold think so.

Right now, on some social media platform, someone is ranting about Zack Snyder

In comic fandom debates and “Film Twitter” discourse, no filmmaker incites more passionate opinioneering than Snyder. His films’ fundamental form and style excites certain viewers to a fanatical devotion while driving others into a furious rage. The Snyderverse is, to put it mildly, divisive. From his unceasing interest in the mythological to his color palette, Snyder’s comic book adaptations draw clear lines of taste in the sand. The ignorant armies of Twitter meet at that line to clash by night.

Yes, that was an allusion to Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet and critic who provides a perspective that helps us appreciate something about Snyder’s idiosyncrasies. I’ll get to him in just a bit, but first, let’s place this controversy in a larger cultural context.

One of the more exhausting examples of gang-sign flashing on Film Twitter is the endless discourse about what Martin Scorsese thinks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). On one side there are those who cheer Scorsese’s advocating for a less-commercial cinematic art that challenges moviegoers. This position is opposed by those who want to celebrate the populism and accessibility of “amusement park” features.

In some ways, Snyder’s work splits the difference in this debate (though Scorsese may not see it that way). His DC films are both comic book carnival rides and attempts at ancient storytelling. This is at the heart of why people have such strong opinions about him; his work centralizes the question of the proper objective of art. The argument is so tiresome because it thinks of itself as new when it is as old as art itself. For some insight, let’s look back at an earlier edition of “The Discourse”, as it provides special insight into why Snyder’s style is so divisive.

Arnold made a literary career out of being lovingly-at-odds with the dominant trends of his culture. Convinced that England was too self-satisfied and inward looking, he urged cultural and philosophical engagement with Europe. While many critics of the emerging modern era pushed for a break from the ancient world, Arnold argued for a continued engagement with the Greeks. According to Arnold, modern critics over-valued eloquent reflections on the inner self of the poet, whereas the Greeks offered visions of eternally noble action. Strange as it may sound, a consideration of the preface to Arnold’s 1853 collection of poems helps us understand Snyder’s obsession with the ancients. 

Arnold establishes the prevailing critical consensus of his day by quoting The Specator: “the Poet who would really fix the public attention must leave the exhausted past, and draw his subjects from matters of present import…” (188). Arnold makes no bones about his response: “Now this view I believe to be completely false” (188). He states his reasons rather plainly, writing “What are the eternal objects of Poetry, among all nations and at all times? They are actions; human actions; possessing an inherent interest in themselves, and which are to be communicated in an interesting manner by the art of the Poet” (188).

In other words, great actions are the foundation of great art, and this is universally true across time and space. For Arnold, the ancients, in the form of their action-oriented art, provide a reliable guide to enlightened moderns, so caught up in the artifice they paste over inferior actions. Arnold writes, “A modern critic would have assured him that the merit of his piece depended on the brilliant things which arose under his pen as he went along. We have poems which seem to exist merely for the sake of single lines and passages; not for the sake of producing any total impression” (192-3). Here Arnold essentially makes your basic silk-purse/sow’s arse argument. 

It’s important to note that Arnold was not opposed to skillful prose, only when it was in service to covering up inferior action. He cites Shakespeare as an example. The Bard had a “happy, abundant, and ingenious expression, eminent and unrivaled” (195), but it only became great because “Shakespeare indeed chose excellent subjects” (194). At first glance, this argument seems odd; where does Shakespeare’s greatness lie if not in the gorgeousness of his language? Yet, upon reflection, world cinema is full of great works that strip Shakespeare’s stories from their Elizabethan context.

Ultimately, Arnold’s argument about Shakespeare’s greatness seems correct and perhaps serves as an explanation as to why Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations work so powerfully even when stripped of Shakespeare’s language. It’s the actions that drive the Bard’s artistry; ancient, universal deeds of good and evil that transcend time and place. 

The critical debate Arnold joined in his 1853 “Preface” bears a shape resembling that which surrounds Snyder’s career. Where Victorian critics might complain about an “exhausted past”, their modern descendants would probably settle on terms like “rehashing old stories..” In both cases, there’s an impatience with the past, and Snyder’s persistent return to ancient actions can “exhaust” many modern critics.