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The Common DNA of the Snyder Cut and First Cow

The world’s gone mad.

I’m not talking about COVID or politics. I’m talking about an interview with Zack Snyder by the New York Times, before the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a revised version of 2017’s  Justice League which brings it in line with Snyder’s vision. He noted that the film’s unusual 4:3 aspect ratio was something it had in common with indie film First Cow, saying, “Those two movies share some common DNA, I think…I would love that in a double feature, First Cow’ and the Snyder cut of Justice League’.

For those unaware, First Cow is a critically praised but financially unsuccessful movie about making a living on the American frontier, as different from the Snyder Cut as…well, as an indie art film and a gigantic superhero epic, with barely any similarities at first glance. To examine these films side by side would be insane. But insane ideas aren’t always bad ones, and I was curious whether Snyder might be on to something with this comparison. So here I am, having watched both films, ready to explain how the Snyder Cut and First Cow both explore the ideas of heroism which are typical to their genres, and how they use comparable techniques to make very different points.

While the use of a nearly square 4:3 aspect ratio for the Snyder Cut struck many as unusual, Snyder’s decision was carefully considered. The taller frame of the image allowed him to recreate the predominantly vertical framing of comic panels and suited his goal of releasing the film in IMAX. While the pandemic has made viewing the Snyder Cut on IMAX impossible for now, the film’s visuals are magnificent. With ample use of slow-mo and bold lighting, we get the sense that even when the heroes aren’t on screen, we’re watching something extraordinary, as if the glory of the Justice League transforms the world they live in and makes it special, an idea that Snyder will go on to develop.

Like superhero films, the Western is likewise a genre dominated by visual spectacle, but Kelly Reichardt, the director of First Cow, uses visuals to tell a different story. The tight, square frame of the image adds a sense of intimacy instead of grandeur and emphasizes the oppressive vastness of the American frontier. Building on this, the story’s events are often framed at a distance, through barriers such as doorframes or windows, using the camera subjectively and implying that the story we see is only a fragment of a wider, fully realized world.

This is particularly significant given how Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt invite us to look through the eyes of minor characters in the film. Blauvelt noted in an interview that the framing of the cow’s arrival in the frontier town, from the perspective of Native Americans fishing nearby, was out of Reichardt’s desire to “[think] of how they must have felt when things like the very first cow ever appeared in a territory”. The camera lingers on these minor characters for unusually long stretches of time, such as when Reichard concludes a scene showing how the settlers’ view of the beaver-trapping industry clashes with that of the natives by turning the camera o show two Native American women chatting in their own language, suggesting her interest in telling—even briefly—these small, atypical stories. Instead of the tendency for Westerns to focus on a single white hero and relegate others, especially Native Americans, to marginalized stereotypes, Reichardt seeks to broaden the genre’s lens and encompass a wider world.

The Snyder Cut, like First Cow, strives to contextualize its superheroes within a human world. Something Snyder is frequently criticized for is his heavy-handed symbolism, such as how his films for DC portray Superman as a messianic figure and repeatedly frame him with outstretched arms to invoke the Crucifixion. The way his visuals almost always present the events on screen as being awe-inspiring means that all of the members of the Justice League are rendered as larger-than-life beings, which poses the risk of making them feel distant and inhuman. But Snyder also spends time showing them doing day-to-day things like making tea or applying for jobs, with these scenes anchoring these characters to the human world. They’re presented as elevated role models, but these human elements keep them from feeling unapproachable, and give a better sense of the world the heroes are fighting to save.

However, this solution is an imperfect one, with these long scenes contributing to the film’s meandering pace and exhausting run-time. But sometimes this link of the human and superhuman works perfectly, most notably in the case of Cyborg, whose character arc in the Snyder Cut—moving from hating his Frankenstein-like existence to accepting and fully using his new powers—is probably the most well-developed and interesting in the film. He, alongside the Flash and Aquaman, are new members of the League who fall victim to doubt, apathy and a fear of commitment, holding them back from greatness. The film presents Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman as mentors, whose role is to unite and guide these young heroes towards realizing their heroic potential. And while the heroes recognize and nurture each other’s unique skills, the villains are a force of oppressive homogenization—they employ a mindless, monstrous army, and the event the heroes are trying to stop is literally called the Unity—with Snyder sketching out an almost religious allegory counterpointing the value of difference with demonic forces which seek oppression and the loss of individuality.

First Cow is altogether more skeptical of the archetypes of heroism typical to Westerns. The protagonists create comfort and beauty on the frontier through their work and friendship, but their success is only possible through acts of theft, which eventually lead to their deaths. It is always ambiguous whether the protagonists are selfish or selfless, or if their actions are right or wrong—every character is united by greed and folly, but also by gentler emotions. Reichardt is skeptical of these simple categories, just as she points out how the American Dream requires people to already possess skills and capital to succeed. In this system good people can succeed, but only by breaking the rules.

It’s common for movies to explore morally simplistic genres by making their heroes darker and flawed, from self-doubting superheroes to violent cowboys, a style of storytelling which Snyder is very much a part of. And these stories, at their best, are thrillingly original and thought-provoking. But First Cow shows that that kindness exists amidst violence, that nostalgia unites even the selfish, that in the barbarity of the frontier—of civilization, even—friendship is possible. The idea that heroes must be violent and tormented is as reductive as black-and-white morality, and by showing us the inner workings of human kindness, First Cow finds complexity within a simple, gentle narrative.

The Snyder Cut and First Cow seem to say very different things: the Snyder Cut is a world where man can, by shedding apathy and gaining faith, reach the superhuman heights of the heroes of old, while First Cow defies the genre limitations of the Western by showing us a glimpse of a broader world, in which goodness and selfishness are impossible to neatly define. But when you consider these films together, it becomes apparent that their common DNA is thematic—both movies draw on a comparable arsenal of narrative and visual techniques, to explore the same question of what it means to be a hero and a good person.

Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/147718632@N06/38441988401/in/photostream/?fbclid=IwAR2l0eX4OmOL_QUaoC6rT-fHVmzLff8NTexRCraw-0jGzJk5MuKKEm1k_iE

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