In a lot of ways, Watchmen, the comic series that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons started publishing in 1986, is a story about the folly of human ambition. It’s about superheroes, and yet there are no actual heroes in the book, super or otherwise. The characters dress up in masks and costumes to serve as forces of good, or to get famous, or to indulge their most violent impulses, or to impress their parents, or some combination of those things. But they’re all ultimately forced to confront their own meaninglessness when they’re faced with forces beyond their control. In the end—and yes, I’m spoiling things here—millions are dead, the victims of a few people’s efforts to control everything they see.
So maybe it’s appropriate that Zack Snyder’s 2009 Watchmen adaptation is an ambitious folly of its own. In 1987, the same year that Moore and Gibbons finished publishing the comic, different Hollywood studios started trying to figure out how they’d turn it into a movie. But Watchmen is dark and violent and philosophically heavy. It’s also long and intricate and densely plotted, to the point where you lose a whole lot if you remove anything. And since it’s a story told on a cosmic scale, it would’ve required special effects that would’ve been unheard of in the late ’80s. Quick: Try to imagine how the ’80s-movie version of Watchmen might’ve looked. It’s beyond comprehension.
Alan Moore has said that he wrote Watchmen to be unfilmable—a tough claim to prove, since people weren’t exactly itching to turn cult-favorite comic books into expensive movies back in the mid-’80s. But whether or not it was Moore’s intention, Watchmen sure as hell presented some serious obstacles to anyone who might’ve hoped to turn it into a living, breathing movie. Plenty of heavyweights gave it a shot. At various points, people like Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky were attached to the movie, and I would’ve loved to see what either of them might’ve done with it. But in the end, both of them were too smart to try, and the movie went to probably the only director who could’ve gotten it made.
On paper, Zack Snyder was probably the exact right choice to make Watchmen. Snyder had just had huge success with 300, another lavish and brutal comic book adaptation. For that movie, Snyder had been working from the source material of Frank Miller, probably Alan Moore’s main competitor in that mid-’80s moment where people started considering the idea that superhero comics could be serious art. Snyder had treated his source material as bible, recreating comic book panels in ecstatic slow motion and delighting in the aesthetics of his violence. And so Snyder might’ve been the only person who could potentially take the original comic seriously and make something commercial out of it.
The problem, of course, was that Alan Moore and Frank Miller could not possibly be more different from each other. Miller’s 300 was a nakedly fascistic work, a fetishy lionization of the arguable heroes who put a bloody end to the spread of Persian culture. Miller turns his heroes into tragic macho bloodletters, but he loves them. Moore, on the other hand, looks at the entire idea of heroism, super or otherwise, as an attempt at control. In the alternate reality of Moore’s Watchmen world, superheroes assassinate JFK, murder Woodward and Bernstein, and slaughter innocents in Vietnam, all before the insane Grand Guignol conclusion. One character attempts to pay tribute to superheroes by comparing them to the KKK—another group of masked avengers who, as this guy sees it, were just trying to protect their community. Thanks to the efforts of superheroes, Richard Nixon becomes president for life. Moore does not like these guys.
So when Zack Snyder tries to take on Alan Moore, there is a supreme disconnect at work. In Watchmen, Snyder painstakingly recreates Gibbons’ panels, just as he’d done with Miller’s work in 300. He jams as much of the comic’s convoluted storyline as he can into nearly three hours—more, if you watch the various deluxe-edition cuts out there. It probably would’ve been possible to update Watchmen, to turn it into a story about the fear of environmental catastrophe rather than about the Cold War nuclear anxiety of the comic book. But no: The Watchmen comic book took place in the ’80s, so that’s when the movie has to take place, too, even if that means we end up watching someone running around in a rubbery and exaggerated Nixon mask.
Zack Snyder clearly loves Watchmen. The level of detail in the movie is just insane. The best thing about the movie is probably the great opening-credits montage (set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” since Snyder never met a thuddingly obvious musical cue that he didn’t love), which shows us decades of superhero history in delirious slow motion. Elsewhere, Snyder takes great care in recreating the old McLaughlin Group set, or in showing Lee Iacocca getting his head blown off. As a craftsman, he wanted to tell a deeply involved story and to render it with all the visual beauty that it deserved. Snyder put untold resources into showing us Dr. Manhattan walking across the surface of Mars, his dong flapping in the nonexistent breeze. Snyder half-assed nothing, and he got this movie made, which is some kind of miracle.
But from another perspective, the Watchmen movie is also a total debacle, one that fundamentally misunderstands the entire point of the book. To Moore, heroes are either ineffectual and useless, or they’re fearsome fanatics out to destroy lives. The impulses that produces these heroes are bad impulses. They’re about domination. There’s nothing cool about them. And yet Snyder can’t help but make everything look as cool as it possibly can.
On a purely visceral level, the fight scenes in Watchmen are among the best in the entire history of superhero movies. Snyder frames those fights elegantly, capturing their intricate choreography in all its glory. He makes sure the hits really look like they hurt, and we see violence taking a toll on human bodies, something that the recent Marvel movies almost never give us. Sometimes, Snyder indulges in outright kung-fu wirework, and it looks amazing. But those action scenes, thrilling as they may be, totally violate the whole idea of the book that Snyder so lovingly recreates. Moore didn’t put any thrilling action scenes into Watchmen because the action that he does depict is outright harmful. But Snyder can’t help himself.
Consider, for example, the character of the Nite Owl. In the book, Nite Owl is a riff on plenty of past superheroes, most notably Batman. He’s a rich guy with airships and gadgets and underground lairs. Moore writes him as a clueless pud who’s never not in over his head. The central joke is that this doof ever thought himself capable of heroics. And that’s mostly how Patrick Wilson plays him. But in Snyder’s fight scenes, Nite Owl suddenly becomes a merciless bone-cracking asskicker.
The movie has a similar problem with the vigilante psychopath Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job with Rorschach, giving him a Clint Eastwood rasp and a chilling intensity. But in the book, Rorschach is basically a force for evil. He’s got his own code, and he’s good at what he does, but he’s also a murderous right-wing zealot who puts the entire human race at risk because he can’t stand to take an L. But when Snyder brings Rorschach to life, he turns him into a badass antihero. Maybe that’s what Rorschach already was, but Snyder has, if anything, too much affection for the character. He’s too beholden to Moore’s vision to puzzle out what Moore is really trying to say.
But then, what could Snyder have done differently? In turning Watchmen into a period piece, he effectively removes the urgency that the book must’ve had when it came out. But would you trust Zack Snyder to find smart and relevant ways to update Moore’s story? Snyder makes a few minor tweaks to the story, but some of those tweaks, like using “Watchmen” as the actual name of a superteam, only serve to make the movie dumber. So maybe it’s unimaginative of Snyder to slavishly retell a story that he might not fully understand. But maybe it’s also better than the alternative. (Right now, Damon Lindelof is turning Watchmen into an HBO series that’s supposed to kick off next year. Maybe he’ll have better luck. If nothing else, he’ll have the benefit of getting the time to tell the story. Back when he was trying to make the Watchmen movie, Terry Gilliam figured out that it would work better as a miniseries. Someone finally listened.)
On top of the fundamental wrongness of the entire enterprise, there is so much in Watchmen that still, nearly a decade later, bugs me to no end. Some of Moore’s written words, especially Rorschach’s hard-boiled narration, sound perfectly ridiculous when spoken out loud. Some of the performances are outright bad; Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias, for example, is chilly and remote where he needs to be charismatic. The big sex scene, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” is genuinely hilarious, for bad reasons. There’s a dream sequence that only serves to make the obvious themes even more obvious. The revamped ending makes the story neater, but it’s also way less spectacular. I could go on.
And yet I’m glad the Watchmen movie exists. For all the shit that Snyder got so gallingly wrong, he still made a work of commendably grand and absurd spectacle. Watchmen lost money, and it’s amazing to think that anyone thought something that weird ever had any real blockbuster potential. I have to imagine that the movie would’ve been nearly incomprehensible to anyone who didn’t already know the book. And on some strange animal level, it was a total thrill to sit down in a theater and see these characters rendered bigger than life on a movie screen. When I walked out of the theater that night, I was happy. Someone had done it. Someone had pulled this ridiculous idea off. It started falling apart when I started thinking about it in the parking lot, but that buzz will stay with me.
As unsuccessful as Watchmen was, on more than one level, it was still enough to convince the powers that be that Zack Snyder was an honest-to-god superhero auteur. Four years after Watchmen, Snyder directed Man Of Steel and essentially became the visionary driving force behind the DC Cinematic Universe. That whole enterprise seems to be falling apart as I’m typing this, and you could certainly argue that it was a failure. We’ll get there soon enough. But again, it’s easy enough to imagine what Warner Bros. was thinking. Zack Snyder had taken these deeply flawed Alan Moore characters and treated them like gods. Why not see what he could do with a character who really was supposed to be like a god?
Other notable 2009 superhero movies: 2009 was a pretty shitty year for superhero movies. Consider Gavin Hood’s dumbfoundingly awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie that did everything it possibly could to destroy whatever gravitas the Wolverine character had built up. These days, the movie is mostly remembered as Ryan Reynolds’ dry run at the Deadpool character—one that got the character so wrong that it literally rendered him mouthless by the end of the movie. But there was so much else wrong with it, too, including Taylor Kitsch’s attempt at a Cajun accent, Will.I.Am’s attempt to break into acting, and some of the worst big-budget special effects you will ever see.
In Paul McGuigan’s Push, a post-Human Torch and pre-Captain America Chris Evans scowled his way through a deeply confusing cosmology where shadowy government agencies attempt to control way too many different varieties of superpowered lab rats. (A pre-Yellowjacket Corey Stoll is in there, too, as one of those shadowy government agents.) Push might have a likable lead in Evans, but there’s so much going on in the plot that it’s totally incoherent. I tried watching it with the Wikipedia page open, and I still couldn’t tell what the fuck was going on. And it doesn’t help that McGuigan shoots everything on grainy stock and chops it all up chaotically, aiming for ’90s Wong Kar-wai but ending up with a ’90s off-brand Mountain Dew commercial.
Peter Stebbings’ low-budget indie Defendor, meanwhile, is a respectable entry into the “what if regular people tried to become superheroes, I bet there would be a lot of violence” subgenre. A pre-Carnage Woody Harrelson plays a mentally disturbed and traumatized construction worker who tries to become a virtuous vigilante, leading a weirdly impressive cast that also includes Sandra Oh, Elias Koteas, and Kat Dennings. The movie aims for darkly funny and mostly ends up with darkly dark, but those actors have enough presence to make it absorbingly watchable anyway.
There was also Paper Man, a May/December indie romance with Jeff Daniels and a pre-Mary Jane Watson Emma Stone. Daniels spends the movie talking to the title’s imaginary-childhood-friend superhero, played by Ryan Reynolds, who has played too many superheroes for me to keep doing the pre/post thing I’ve been doing. And there was the superhero parody Super Capers, which I’d never heard of before researching this piece and which looks really bad.
Next time: We’re stretching the definition of “superhero movie” a bit here, but Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World finds fun and inventive visual ways to tell a story about superpowered beings fighting each other.