The Art and Musings of Felix Quinonez Jr.

With Watchmen, Zack Snyder Crafted a Love Letter to a Story He Didn't Seem to Fully Understand

Felix Quinonez Jr.

Watchmen  movie poster Warner Bros.

Watchmen movie poster Warner Bros.

2009 proved to be a momentous year for comic book fans. 23 years after the comic book series, Watchmen debuted; a movie adaptation finally hit the big screen. This wasn’t the first time a film was attempted, in fact there had been efforts to get it on the screen before the series even finished.

It was a long and arduous journey from the comic book pages to the big screen. Some efforts had gotten further than others. But every failed attempt seemed to cement the comic’s reputation for being unfilmable. In fact it’s a small miracle that it finally got made at all.

But after the game changing The Dark Knight, directed by Christopher Nolan, it seemed that the world was finally ready for a celluloid version of the medium’s most lauded work.

And when the dust settled, it was Zack Snyder who got the intimidating task of directing the beloved book’s big screen adaptation. But even after the movie was completed and close to being released another obstacle popped up. Fox sued Warner Bros. for copyright violation. It turns out that, producer; Lawrence Gordon didn’t pay for the buy-out that allowed him to develop the movie at other studios. Fox tried to block the release but eventually a settlement was reached in which they received 8% of the grosses.

Not surprisingly, when the movie finally arrived, it immediately became lightning rod for controversy. It was as polarizing as one would expect. Since then, almost all of Snyder’s movies have been divisive. Watchmen was actually the last movie he directed that was labeled “fresh” at Rotten tomatoes. In the end it didn’t make much of an impact at the box office. The fan anticipation and unrealistic expectations set the movie up for failure almost from the beginning. Needless to say the movie didn’t have a similar impact to the comic books.

Watchmen  Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

Watchmen Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

The comic book series, written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, ran from 1986 to 1987 but its conception began in 1985. DC comics had recently acquired a line of characters from Charlton Comics. And Alan Moore wanted to write a story starring a revamped version of these characters.

Moore wrote a treatment for a murder mystery story and submitted the unsolicited proposal to, then managing editor, Dick Giordano. Although he liked the story idea, Giordano was worried that it would render the characters unusable. Because of this, he encouraged Moore to use original characters.

At first, Moore was hesitant, believing that in order for the story to work, the characters would need to be familiar to the reader. But eventually he realized that if he wrote them as analogues, representing the superhero archetypes, it could still work. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The story takes place in an alternate reality that closely mirrors our own world as it was in the 1980s. However in Watchmen, superheroes exist. And their existence has had a big impact on the world, causing its history to diverge from our own. One of the main differences in the Watchmen universe is that the US won the Vietnam War and eventually turned the country into the 51st state.

The original team of masked crusaders was called The Minutemen. They had their 15 minutes of fame and for a while, they became the nation’s pastime. But eventually they gave way to a second generation of masked heroes on whom the story mainly focuses on. However the younger heroes aren’t met with the same enthusiasm and a bill eventually gets passed that outlaws vigilantes and forces all but a few of them to retire.

The Minutemen Image via Warner Bros.

The Minutemen Image via Warner Bros.

Things kick off in October 1985, as police are investigating the murder of Edward Blake. The murder captured the interest of costumed vigilante, Rorschach and he decides to take the investigation into his own hands. He soon discovers that Blake was actually the civilian identity of The Comedian, a former vigilante turned paramilitary agent. Rorschach believes the murder of the comedian was just the beginning and that there is a plot in motion to kill the rest of the costumed heroes.

Because of this, he goes about warning the rest of his old teammates who are predictably skeptical of his theory. But eventually they uncover a sinister conspiracy and are forced out of retirement to stop it. 

The series was an instant smash, selling out and receiving wide praise. And when it was eventually collected in the trade paperback it really took off. It reached new audiences, helped kick off the graphic novel/Trade Paperback market and received even more acclaim. Watchmen was the only graphic novel on Time's 2005 "All-Time 100 Greatest Novels" And it gave readers something they could point to as proof of the medium’s artistic merits.

But its sales were far from its only impact. Along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, it helped reimagine the super hero and how we looked at them. It deconstructed them and made the readers appreciate the characters in new ways. Watchmen focused on the human side of superheroes. And it revealed their clay feet.

Watchmen also had a huge impact on the medium and industry. And it cast a long shadow over just about everything that followed. It encouraged other creators to explore dark and complex themes in their own stories. And it also proved that comic books could appeal to older readers.

However it did also inspire a lot of copycats. And as is so often the case, the imitators mostly missed what made Watchmen so special to begin with. They didn’t focus on the nuance, the social or Meta commentary, or the humanity that was an intrinsic part of Watchmen. Instead they only saw the violence, the blood and the sex. This led to a prevalence of so-called grim and gritty comic books. A lot of them were basically hollow, superficial attempts to copy Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Another impact Watchmen had was that it played a big part in Alan Moore’s decision to break ties with DC. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had an agreement that stated that once Watchmen had been out of print for over a year, the rights would revert to the creators. However DC never planned to let it go out of print so the agreement was basically worthless and Moore and Gibbons would never get the rights back to their creations.

Because it was such an influential work, it’s no surprise that there was a desire to make a big screen adaptation of it. Directors like Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Greengrass were all, at one point, set to direct the movie.

Zack Snyder on the set of  Watchmen

Zack Snyder on the set of Watchmen

But in the end it was Zack Snyder who got the job. Snyder got his start directing TV commercials. His first movie, the Dawn of the Dead remake was well received and very profitable. He followed that up with 300, a big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s influential comic book series of the same name. That movie proved to be an even bigger hit, grossing over $450 million worldwide, on a $65 million budget. But more importantly, it impressed producers Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. And they approached Snyder to direct Watchmen.

Things began promisingly enough for the movie. After the first trailer debuted at the 2008 San Diego Comic con, interest in the Watchmen collected edition was rekindled. Although it has always been a steady seller, the movie ramped up sales astronomically. DC had to print more than 900,000 copies and wound up selling about a million copies of Watchmen that year

But as the reviews started to come out, it was clear that the critics were split. It has a 65% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a passing grade, but not by much. And audiences were equally split. The movie opened to $55 million on its opening weekend, down from the $70 million some were forecasting. And it made almost half that number on Friday night. In its second weekend, it dropped 67.7% to less than $18 million. That big drop shows that the movie didn’t connect with audiences and people weren’t seeing it a second time or recommending it to loved ones.

The thing about Watchmen, the movie, is that it’s hard to judge it objectively. The source material is undeniably great and almost universally beloved. People have wanted to see a movie of it for decades. And because of this, some, including me, have a tendency to grade the movie on a curve simply because it finally brought Watchmen to life.

Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II in  Watchmen  via Warner Bros.

Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl II in Watchmen via Warner Bros.

Seeing the characters and world brought to life on screen was thrilling. And there is something undeniably wonderful about seeing Nite Owl’s ship, ARCHIE, in action. There was an enormous amount of attention paid to the details and it shows. The movie did a great job of capturing the look and feel of Dave Gibbons’ artwork. At times the movie literally recreates panels from the comic book.

It’s clear that Snyder loves the source material and has a lot of reverence for it. But unfortunately his worship of the comic is ironically also the movie’s downfall.

Regardless of what you think of the movie, it’s hard to argue Snyder’s good intentions. The movie is the way it is because the filmmaker felt that was the best way to adapt the story. It never feels like choices were made to keep it more commercially viable or to set up sequels and spinoffs.

There are stretches of the movie where everything seems to come together and the result is undeniably thrilling. The scene where Rorschach is set up and ambushed by the police is easily one of the film’s highlights. It’s the kind of scene that makes you sit up in your seat and hold your breath.

And the scene that details Dr. Manhattan’s origins is another delight. It is one of the few times when the movie at least attempts to recreate the narrative complexities of the book. But as great as these scenes are, they highlight the sharp contrasts between the movie’s highs and lows.

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in  Watchmen  via Warner Bros. 

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach in Watchmen via Warner Bros. 

And although the cast was uneven, it did have some standout performances. Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach was spot on in his role. He nailed the character’s mannerisms and even the way he talked and walked. It really felt like the character was brought to life on screen.

Patrick Wilson as Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II was also great. Although Wilson doesn’t really look the part, he does capture sadness and loneliness that defines the character. There is definitely something missing in his life. And Wilson does a great job of portraying the regret that weighs the character down.

Billy Crudup, who portrayed Jon Osterman/Dr. Manhattan probably, had the hardest job. And at times his performance seems to get lost behind the CGI. But he really sells the alienation that came from Dr. Manhattan essentially being a god. And there is a subtlety to Crudup’s performance that really works for the character.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Edward Morgan Blake/The Comedian perfectly captures the cynicism of the character.

Carla Gugino as Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre is a bit underused but still very good. She does a great job at portraying the disappointment in her life. She longs for her glory days and wants to relive them through her daughter.

Stephen McHattie as Hollis Mason/Nite Owl has great chemistry with Wilson and even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, he makes the most of it.

Unfortunately not all the performances were great. Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias comes off as boring and bland. And he does actually seem like the “Comic book villain” that he claims he isn’t.

Malin Åkerman as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II is just plain bad. She almost ruins every scene she is in. She comes off as vapid and whiney. The character is a lot more interesting than this. And Åkerman sounds like she’s reading her lines off a cue card that she is squinting to make out because it’s too far to see clearly.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.

And it might seem like nitpicking but the makeup on some of the characters were laughably bad. Richard Nixon, portrayed by Robert Wisden, was probably the worst. But the make up used to age Carla Gugino was so distracting that at times it took away from her generally strong performance. And although there were some good choices, the movie’s soundtrack was annoying at times. The more annoying song choices ranged from cheesy to nail on the head obvious.

As stated before, Snyder’s slavish adherence to the source material was, at times, detrimental to the movie. And it’s very telling that one of the best parts of the movie wasn’t in the book at all. The opening montage was brilliant.

It was not only great because it did a marvelous job of condensing a lot of background information about The Minutemen. But it was also visually inventive. And it had a different tone that was more fitting for the first generation heroes. In a sense they represent the “golden age” of the Watchmen universe. And it’s fitting that it feels a bit more lighthearted. There was a sense optimism, at least at the beginning, for them.

Another place the movie strays from the source material is with the ending. The original ending was good for the comic as it was a sort of commentary on the silliness of comic book villains but the change for the movie was great.

One of the earlier attempts to adapt the comic book for the screen would have been set in the present. But Snyder’s film moved the movie back to the 80s. It was no doubt an attempt to stay “true” to the source material. But obviously the irony was lost on them. Since the comic books were actually released in the 80s it was set in the present.

Because of this, the comic touched on real world anxieties. And in doing so, it became much more than just a comic book. Like Animal Farm, by George Orwell, Watchmen has the initial appearance of being a strictly fictional story with characters that some might describe as silly. But closer inspection reveals the allegorical elements that comment on very real issues. 

In the end Watchmen’s biggest legacy might be the army of imitators it spawned. Unfortunately, too many people seemed to think that the violence and “grittiness” were what was important to Watchmen’s success and, at times, it seems that Zack Snyder is one of those people.

Snyder revels in the violence and seems to fetishize it in a juvenile way. And the movie bends over backwards to expertly capture every blood splatter and the sound of bones cracking. In the comics, the violence was used more sparingly and is almost beside the point. But for Snyder, the violence itself is the point.

And watching all of the prolonged fight scenes with supposed “regular” people punching through walls like Supermen and jumping 20 feet into the air can be genuinely head scratching. Did Snyder read a different version of Watchmen or just not understand it?

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in  Watchmen  Warner Bros.

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen Warner Bros.

His love for the source material is undeniable but it seems that he’s a shallow fanboy who tends to miss the point of Watchmen. During the marketing of the movie, Snyder was described as a “visionary” but his approach to making this movie does not support this claim.

His slavish devotion to the comic led him to recreate it as close to its source material as possible, at least on a superficial level. And that seems about as far as one can get from being a “visionary.” It’s ironic because a real “visionary” director would have seen that straying from the source material could have resulted in a movie that is actually more faithful to the story.

Instead, by trying to essentially photocopy the book, Snyder gave us something that certainly looks like Watchmen but really isn’t.  

Watchmen used a superhero story as a sort of Trojan horse to deliver a much larger, more interesting story about life, humanity and the very idea of heroes. But Watchmen, the movie, despite all of its self-aggrandizing posturing is just another superhero movie, and not a particularly good one at that.