If we are living in the age of comic book movies, we have to acknowledge the influence of Zack Snyder on the genre.
The director of Batman vs Superman has helmed several of the most important comic book movies of a generation, from 300 to Watchmen. His current role as a producer on the DC Extended Universe means his influence will only grow.
Snyder has become associated with a distinct visual style, and one of the most important elements of that style is color. Want to paint your film like a Zack Snyder movie? Here’s how.
Watch: How to Use Color Like Zack Snyder
Super Heroes and Zack Snyder Movies
It would be unfair to say that Zack Snyder movies are all comic book adaptations.
They’re about larger than life figures. Characters too big for the worlds they inhabit, even if those worlds include aliens, zombies, or the Batman himself.
Zack Snyder uses color to draw attention to those figures in contrast to the worlds they live in.
The director of Batman vs Superman is, unsurprisingly, drawn to dark themes. Zack Snyder movies often explore the darker side of human nature, and he isn’t afraid to show the flawed sides of our heroes.
The Man of Steel director showcases this with muted, almost washed out color schemes. Snyder’s worlds, as fantastic as they are, are not nice places. They’re grounded, harsh, and sometimes border on nihilistic.
As an example, let’s look at the only Zack Snyder movie based on an original concept, Sucker Punch.
Sucker Punch is a narratively complex film. The story of a young woman (known as Baby Doll) committed to a mental institution, it slips into surrealism as Baby Doll concocts a fantasy world to escape to.
Within that fantasy, Baby Doll finds further reason to fall deeper into fantasies that imagine her and her friends as warriors fighting impossible monsters.
In retrospect, it’s not too surprising he would go on to be the Man of Steel director
The above shot, depicting one of her fantasies, shows that for the 300 director, bleak, almost nihilistic themes are never far from the surface.
Even if you’re fighting a giant robot samurai.
In Zack Snyder movies, protagonists aren't heroes, even if they wear capes. They exist in dark, grimy worlds and are themselves often extremely flawed people.
That isn’t to say that Zack Snyder films don’t have any heroes.
Vivid Associative Colors
As an adapter of comic books, Snyder doesn’t have full control when it comes to coloring his heroes.
Dr. Manhattan is neon blue in the film because he’s neon blue in the comics. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman’s costumes haven’t changed all that much in 75 years.
But the Watchmen director takes those associative colors and turns them up to 11. Ozymandias' superhero costume isn't just purple. So are his business suits and the lights of his skyscraper.
300 is one the clearest examples of this.
The Man of Steel director had a few reasons for emphasizing the Spartan’s bright red capes.
Aside from inspiring an army of cosplayers to hit the gym, the bright red capes of 300 serve two purposes.
First, as a practical matter, they help call out our heroes in the chaos of war. The cape quickly calls out to the audience that this is one of the good guys.
Second, they’re a symbol of the courage and virtue of the Spartans. Surrounded by characters would give in to Xerxes’ offers of luxury and wealth, the Spartans stand as champions of freedom.
When you combine the bright associative colors of heroes and the monochromatic drab backgrounds, you create a color scheme that seems to encapsulate the worldview of the 300 director. A kind of ironic discordance.
Think of the bright yellow pop of the Comedian’s button in Watchmen. It’s a superhero’s emblem -- larger than life, bright and colorful. A happy symbol of the 60’s. But it sits in a dark world.
And the man who wears it isn't the happy costumed adventurer he appears to be.A more recent example can be found in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Watchmen director has provided us with arguably our handsomest Bruce Wayne.
Batman has always been a dark character. Has always been associated with the color black. But that bright red behind him reminds the audience that what drives this Batman is rage.
Not just from losing his parents and the destruction of Metropolis, but of the death of Robin, according to an interview with the director of Batman vs Superman himself.
That Robin is often associated with red drives this point home even further.
But should we look up to someone so driven by wrath?
As of 2017’s Justice League, over half of Zack Snyder’s movies are comic book adaptations. One could be forgiven for assuming that these colors were the choices of the original comic book artists.
But even in his most faithful adaptations, Zack Snyder and his wife, producer Deborah Snyder, bring an undeniable sensibility to their projects.
It's this sensibility that drives his choices in color, not the pages of the comic books those stories are drawn from.
Although to be fair, those probably help too.Interested in learning more about color? Download our free ebook on using color in film, and check out our series on Mastering the Film Color Palette!
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