Zack Snyder has always been obsessed with heroes. And whether it’s the unlikely heroes of Rebel Moon and Army of the Dead or his stint in the DC Universe, that obsession always comes out in his work. But to see how deeply the themes of mythological heroes run in his films, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of his career and the first movie he ever made, a Michael Jordan docu-fiction hybrid called Playground. It’s available for digital rental or purchase on Prime Video (or you can find it on YouTube).
The movie follows a young kid who gets cut from his high school basketball team and wanders, dejected, to a local playground, where he meets a seemingly supernatural Michael Jordan. While the kid is ostensibly the main character of the movie, it’s all setup for Jordan to recount his own creation myth.
A mythmaking movie about Jordan is a natural fit: He’s one of the greatest sports heroes of the last 50 years. But what makes Snyder’s film so spectacular is it’s also a called-shot. The movie was released in 1990, and shot before that. That’s just six years into Jordan’s illustrious NBA career, and a year before the first of his six NBA titles. Improbably, it’s still the kind of origin story worthy of the greatest, most dominant player the sport has ever seen.
See, Jordan explains, he too was cut from his varsity team. His greatness at the University of North Carolina even went underappreciated, as he was passed over by two teams in the NBA draft (the Rockets’ pick of fellow all-time superstar Hakeem Olajuwon was justifiable, but the Trail Blazers will never live down picking trivia tidbit Sam Bowie over Jordan). It’s all true, but it’s also all classic Snyder. Like the origins of his Superman in Man of Steel, it’s a fated underdog tail: not a story of someone born without gifts who was honed toward supernatural success, but someone whose talent was innate and needed only to be recognized. The greatest player of all time, hidden on the bench of his high school squad like a Kryptonian in Kansas.
In this era before Snyder could get the budget to make heroic images of his own, he settled for highlight clips of Jordan. Playground is made up mostly of cut-together montages of Jordan’s superhuman athleticism, with each clip building into the next to reveal a more complete and increasingly impressive picture of greatness. In the highlights, it’s easy to see the primordial stage of Snyder’s best action scenes. The style and panache is already there in spades, and techniques that would make him famous in 300, like slow-motion, slick editing, and repeating sequences from different angles, all make appearances.
With almost 34 years of hindsight, and the entirety of Snyder’s career so far to compare it to, it’s clear the director did more than presage the greatness of basketball’s GOAT in Playground. In telling the story of Michael Jordan, Snyder built his own myth too. He was born, it seems, with a preternatural talent for communicating greatness on screen. Not humanity or humility, traits that the exceptional have no need for in Snyder’s worlds, but the transcendent, superhuman talent that turns people into legends. Playground is exactly the quasi-documentary a young Michael Jordan deserved the year before his ascension, and it’s made by the only filmmaker who could craft the player into a myth before the rest of the world could see it. And for all the successes and failures of his career so far, Snyder’s never again gotten to work with a subject able to match the stratospheric heights of his epic poem visuals the way Michael Jordan could — not even Superman.