Watchmen recently popped up on HBO Asia (which is kind of a shame because they always edit the weird stuff out, like giant blue glowing dongs), and I found myself revisiting this peculiar Zack Snyder film from nearly a decade ago. This was the first time I had seen it since it was out in theaters, and I was struck by how much my opinion had changed.
Back in 2009, I recall going with my friends to see a very late showing one evening. I spent most of the time cursing myself for staying out until 3 AM when I had work the next day, as I was then a young buck with a bright future in the professional professionalism industry, while my scallawag friends were naught but layabouts brimming with insolence. I recall the film as a strange, nonsensical experience, colorful but inchoate, and hardly worth the voided slumber now lost to time and eternity.
But with the benefit of nearly a decade of hindsight, I can appreciate Watchmen from a fresh perspective. It strikes me now as a daring work of vision. And yeah, it’s bat-shit insane and doesn’t make any fucking sense, but the fact that this film even got made, and that it really, totally went for it, is pretty astonishing and something that you can’t help but respect.
So let’s go back to 2009. Zack Snyder was a hot commodity, coming off the steaming success of his extravagantly stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, which is a genuinely great film since it didn’t have to do much but look really cool, a specialty of Snyder’s as we would come to find out. In the years leading up to 2009, comic book properties like X-Men and Spider-Man were pretty much making all the money, but Iron Man had only been released the year before, meaning studios and directors were still playing around with how exactly to capture this comic book magic and market the shit out of it, and the idea of expansive shared cinematic universes was still just a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye.
Now it’s often said that Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen was the watershed moment when people realized comic books could be elevated to real literary status, to something more than just pop culture ephemera. Having now read Watchmen, I can assure you the people saying this are comic book nerds desperate to have their shameful hobby legitimized in the eyes of the literati so that when their moms tell them to stop jacking off to comic books in their room and get a job they can reply “But this is art, Mother.”
Watchmen certainly dealt with some interesting themes and issues, including a critical look at the inherent silliness and contradictions of the genre itself, such as what would it really mean if society empowered a group of vigilantes to maintain order and define justice as they saw fit? Unfortunately for Watchmen the movie, The Incredibles had already done this idea a few years earlier and probably handled it more elegantly.
The thing that you really have to respect about Snyder’s Watchmen though, is that it was an almost impossibly tough nut to crack from the beginning. The property had been in development hell for decades precisely because it was so unfilmable, so weird, so iconic, and so messy. And Snyder, to his credit, took that bull by the horns and just made the damn thing, staying very faithful to the comic. Indeed, as he had done with 300, he used the comic to storyboard a lot of what eventually got shot, and even insisted that the pop songs featured in the comic be used. And Warner Bros, to their credit, opened up their wallets for what had to be one of the most expensive soundtracks of all time, and they really went all-in on this weird nerd fantasy of a movie.
To give you an idea of how unlikely it is that a film like this would ever be made, all one has to do is try to briefly summarize it. The movie is set in an alternate version of the 1980s, where Nixon is in his 4th term as president after winning the Vietnam War thanks to Dr. Manhattan, a giant blue naked glowing dude (this sentence alone would be enough to torpedo most studio movie pitches). Dr. Manhattan is part of a group of vigilante heroes, the Watchmen, comprised of Nite Owl II (a Batman rip-off whose super power, like Batman, is being rich); Ozymandias, the smartest man in the world; Rorschach, a psychopath obsessed with vengeance who wears a cool shape-shifting potato sack mask; The Comedian, a sadistic special ops guy; and Silk Spectre II, whose super power appears to be… being a sexy woman?
The movie plays with heady themes of tyranny and justice and even uses Dr. Manhattan as a foil to probe the meaning of life in the kind of Philosophy 101 discussions that you might have with your buddies after, say, taking ten bong rips. The setting is so bat-shit insane, and the ideas trotted out so bizarre, that it’s difficult to really take the heavy ideas it wants to launch at you seriously. I mean, aside from the obvious challenge of having a blue glowstick with a giant penis spout off about existentialism, you have scenes where Ozymandias walks around with his pet Bubastis, a dog-tiger with antlers. I mean… what?? The whole thing is overflowing with out-there, creatively audacious ideas and imagery and I really love that about the comic and the movie. But I don’t think you can elevate it as some literary work of art, and that’s where the film ultimately has a bit of a tough time wrestling with what it is. Is it a masterpiece that inverts the genres of comic book convention in order to hold up a mirror to American society and pop culture? Or is it a wildly creative explosion of fun nonsense made by comic book writers and illustrators who were clearly on drugs?
I lean toward the second interpretation, personally. And the funny thing is, as insane as the movie is, it’s only about 50% as nuts as the graphic novel. Take the ending for instance, where the villain is unmasked as he pulls a Fail Safe - blowing up New York in order to unite America and Russia against a common enemy, sacrificing millions of lives for the greater good. Now, that in an of itself is a pretty dark place to go in a work of fiction, but it arguably teases out some provocative questions about morality and society and choice. But in the comic book, the nuclear bomb is actually a giant rainbow squid-like creature created in a laboratory which the villain teleports into New York, dooming millions of people to death by crushing from what is essentially an enormous pyschedelic jelly-fish. And this, legions of nerds would have us believe, is the height of the form. So, I mean, when you watch this movie and think it’s nuts, you have to understand it’s been significantly toned down from the source material.
Which really serves to highlight the astonishing fact that this movie even got made in the first place, and that it works as well as it does. Because not only is it wrestling with having to translate all that crazy shit into something that will be cinematically palatable, but it has to fit in an enormously intricate mythology with a huge cast of characters as well. How did Zack Snyder choose to do this? With a mesmerizing and intensely ballsy opening credit sequence set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin’, that essentially seeks to establish decades of complex history and mythology through a series of arresting and beautiful images.
Does it work? Well not entirely, because it bites off so much, but now that I am more well versed in Watchmen’s world I really enjoyed this opening sequence, and I truly admired the guts it took to go for it like that. We could have had many minutes of exposition that tried to fill us in on who the Minutemen were, what happened to them, why heroes were eventually outlawed and all the rest. That’s probably what would have happened if Christopher Nolan made this film. But instead, Snyder chose to jam all that back-story into a gorgeous opening credits sequence and just hope the audience would get it. Sure, it was probably too much - but you have to respect that decision to roll the dice and go for it.
Same thing applies to the structure - it starts in media res with the death of The Comedian, and then slowly goes back and fills in the blanks. This requires the audience to trust you, because if they are not sold in the beginning they are going to be very skeptical as you carry them along for the next 2 1/2 hours through a world of antlered dog-tigers and flying owl-ships. And indeed, audience opinion on the film has been very split. Some people, probably those with more knowledge of the graphic novel, love it. Others find it weird and alienating and maybe too loyal to the source material. But you can’t say that it doesn’t look great. Thankfully, Snyder had not yet gone into his Morbid Phase, so the film is still bright and has visual clarity, it has comedic moments, it has great characters, it has a nutso plot that is admirable for its sheer willingness to commit to such strange ideas and to such a bizarre world. And it looks, it truly looks, like a comic book come to life. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, in the grand scheme of it all, but it’s pretty clear that they accomplished what they set out to do. And given the sheer enormity of the cliff they were trying to scale, I must tip my hat to Zack Snyder and Warner Bros on this one. Perhaps their ambitions outpaced what was sensible or achievable, but it’s definitely one of the most innovative and interesting comic book movies we’ve ever had and it’s a shame we may never see its like again.