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In Praise of Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’

Looking back at the 2009 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel and the ways that the superhero movie genre has changed since

Elias Stein/Warner Bros. Pictures

It would be an understatement to describe Zack Snyder as a divisive filmmaker; his most devoted fans treat Justice League’s mythological #SnyderCut with the kind of energy typically reserved for conspiracies about Jeffrey Epstein, which is a lot of effort to put into something that could be, at best, mediocre. But wherever you stand on the great Snyder debate, you will surely admit he takes comics seriously—too seriously, a detractor could argue—and can turn superhero adaptations into massive commercial hits, even when critics are dunking on his work. (Batman v. Superman is, in my view, hot garbage, but there’s no denying the power of an $873 million box office haul.)

But back in 2009, Snyder wasn’t yet a polarizing superhero auteur. He had only two feature films to his name—a kinetic Dawn of the Dead remake and the shredded display of Hellenic abs known as 300—when he came out with Watchmen: the highly anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s comic series. (A TV-series sequel from Damon Lindelof arrives Sunday on HBO, exploring the Watchmen universe in the present day.) Watchmen was long considered unadaptable; it was too sprawling, philosophical, nihilistic, and gruesome to be commercially viable. (And with one of the story’s main characters being a blue, godlike figure who briefly emigrates to Mars, a movie couldn’t exactly be made with chump change.) It is those same qualities, however, that made Snyder the ideal shepherd to finally guide Watchmen to the big screen—a perfect pairing of art and artist that precipitated the bleak (and since recalibrated) foundation of the DC Extended Universe. Watchmen isn’t quite a masterpiece, but because it brought out the best of his dour sensibilities, it’s easily Snyder’s best film.

Granted, every “Watchmen is actually very good” take requires some hedging and listing some of the film’s inescapable flaws. Yes, the grim musings of the masked sociopathic investigator Rorschach sometimes border on self-parody. (“This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children” is doing the Absolute Most, and obviously not in a good way.) Yes, Doctor Manhattan’s blue CGI penis is distracting and has nearly as much screen time as Ozymandias. Yes, some of the performances are terrible—apologies to Malin Akerman. Yes, the unintentionally hilarious Night Owl–Silk Spectre sex scene, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” should be doused in gasoline—once again, apologies to Malin Akerman.

But for Snyder, who likes to infuse superhero stories with biblical undertones and expose the problems inherent in treating anyone like a god—like Henry Cavill’s pensive Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v. SupermanWatchmen provided a gold mine of resonant material. Doctor Manhattan was perhaps the quintessential Snyder muse. In a world of “heroes,” Doctor Manhattan is the only character in Watchmen with actual superpowers—ones that make him wade through the world and its problems like somebody playing a video game with all the cheat codes unlocked. He’s so godlike—an incomplete list of his powers include the ability to manipulate matter, telekinesis, teleportation, limited clairvoyance, and possible immortality—that he struggles to still register as human, an emotional detachment that Billy Crudup handles with solemn pathos. It’s little wonder that Doctor Manhattan and Rorschach—the perfect avatar for Snyder’s affinity for ultraviolence, elevated by an excellent Jackie Earle Haley—are the film’s most fully realized characters.

True to the comic, Doctor Manhattan does exile himself to Mars, considering leaving mankind behind to destroy itself via nuclear Armageddon while he builds his own world. The Mars scenes evoke genuine beauty and wonder—compelling evidence for Snyder zealots that this dude is capable of creating spectacular imagery. The best parts of the film warrant top billing on a reel of the auteur’s greatest hits alongside the film’s opening credits, which compress Watchmen’s alt-history—including Doctor Manhattan’s intervention in the Vietnam War, the Comedian’s responsibility for assassinating JFK, and Richard Nixon’s third term—into the space of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.”

When Watchmen debuted a decade ago, the initial reception—commercially and critically, it can be broadly described as mixed—came in a world that didn’t yet foresee just how dominant and ubiquitous the superhero genre would become. Largely, the superhero shift is a product of two hugely influential films that preceded Watchmen in 2008: The Dark Knight and Iron Man. The former from Christopher Nolan instigated the first real push to take superhero movies seriously as awards players; the latter kick-started the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both, in turn, pushed superhero movies toward becoming the defining blockbusters of our time. Watchmen’s cinematic legacy, meanwhile, isn’t defined by thematic successors as much as it’s a reminder that the superhero genre can be deconstructed through a cynical, contemptuous lens when the opportunity presents itself. Like, well, in the year 2019.

The sheer abundance of comic book IP–based media nowadays has led to superhero counterprogramming like The Boys, the Amazon series based on the Garth Ennis comics that paints superheroes as vapid cogs in a corporate machine. The Boys’ cynical take on superheroes is a breath of fresh air, but the reason the show’s so effective is also its reason for being: Superheroes have gone mainstream. Like The Boys, Snyder’s Watchmen is a nihilist dystopia, where would-be heroes don masks and spandex to indulge violent impulses, carry on a family legacy, or become famous; the spirit of saving people feels like a secondary concern. Revisiting Watchmen in 2019—and with HBO’s Watchmen just around the corner—the film feels less provocative and more like a welcome change of pace from the MCU’s crowd-pleasing corporate synergy. And unlike Joker, Watchmen’s nihilism and R-rated violence is there to make a point—hell, even the film’s Cold War paranoia suddenly feels prescient for, um, reasons.

Ultimately, what stops Watchmen from attaining true greatness—aside from that cringeworthy sex scene—is the fact that Snyder can’t help himself. As 300 proved, the guy has a good eye for action, and he loves presenting epic moments in slow motion. (Slo-mo is to Snyder what big-ass explosions are to Michael Bay.) In 300, that overzealous energy complemented the absurd machismo of Frank Miller’s source material; conversely in Watchmen, we are made to revel in violence rather than reflect on it, as Moore intended (though, in fairness, scenes like Rorschach’s prison escape do, in fact, rip).

But for all of the film’s flaws, Watchmen works more often than it doesn’t. It isn’t a totally faithful adaptation of Moore’s graphic novel, but it could be the best possible outcome on a blockbuster scale. Certainly, there was enough promise in Snyder’s vision for the film that Warner Bros. let him be the driving force behind the DCEU. Of course, that didn’t work out for the studio—or for the auteur, who doubled down on his worst impulses. But if Snyder’s superhero legacy were tied to Watchmen more than to what he did with the DCEU, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Watchmen is pretty good—and if he ever released a #SnyderCut omitting that sex scene, perhaps it might even be great.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.