Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009) is complicated. To start, three people reading this might think of three different things when they read “Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009).” The first might recall the movie that ran in theaters; the second, the Director’s Cut; and the third—say, a brilliant person who read my article from last month—the set of media and experiences that includes the three cuts of the film, the special features, the game, and the motion comic. Yet, even when viewed as that set, as one large text, Watchmen still feels…lacking, especially when compared to the monolith that is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 1986–7 comic of the same name. The root cause of this shortfall is a difference of experience: as I’ll demonstrate, Watchmen the comic book embeds into its narrative the experience of reading comics in order to flesh out its story, themes, and purpose. Watchmen the film1 embeds the experience of being Zack Snyder, a fan whose loyalty to the source material blinds him to its critical and rebellious character in favor of surface-level connections between the page and screen.
I hinted at this last month when I said, “The narrative(s) of Watchmen are, no matter the ordering, merely poor scans of the comic to the film screen, replicating the source and failing to do much else. But that’s moving away from this material-oriented discussion, so it’ll have to wait until the next Tuesday Zone.” This issue isn’t separate from that discussion of materiality, though. It’s an outgrowth. First, consider Moore and Gibbons’ book. Within a few pages, or with a flip through them, we can see the 9-panel grid that defines nearly every page. The rigidity and regularity of this structure emphasizes the artificiality of the medium by emphasizing two of its most basic components: the panel and layout. The color palette might also stand out to those who’ve read a lot of older superhero comics: Watchmen uses secondary colors (purple, green, orange) rather than the more common primary colors (red, green, blue), maintaining and subverting the boldness and consistency of the book’s contemporaries and antecedents (Fig. 1).
These physical qualities are recognizable as particularly comic-like, but different enough to catch our attention. Moore and Gibbons at once engage us and force us to read the story at arm’s length. Why they do so has to do with the aims of the book at large. Watchmen is a critique and deconstruction of the superhero comic, and everything about it expands, distorts, or unveils some aspect of the genre. The authors realize that reading a comic book, whether in issues or a trade paperback, affects us. It changes how we see and read due to our preconceptions (good or bad) of what a superhero comic is. To utilize and comment on this, Moore and Gibbons make the act of reading comics an essential part of the narrative, putting this experience at the center of the story to break our preconceptions so that we can see the genre anew.
Before diving into exactly why they do this and whether or not it’s effective, I’ll outline how and where. Most literally, there’s the character Bernard, a kid who reads a somber and violent pirate comic book called Tales of the Black Freighter. In the backmatter2 of Chapter V, we learn that instead of superhero comics re-surging to dominate the medium in the 1950s, pirate comics took over because superheroes existed in real life. So, in this sense, Bernard is our double in the world of Watchmen, reading a gritty comic book from pop culture’s dominant genre. This is emphasized by transitions in the book from Bernard reading Tales of the Black Freighter to the pages that Bernard is reading (Fig. 2).
Comics writer Grant Morrison argues that the doubling of the reader in the text goes even further: the entire book can be interpreted as Seymour—a hapless assistant at a right-wing newspaper—reading Rorschach’s journal, which he sees and reaches for in the last page of the book (Fig. 3). Rather than showing us a comic reader, Moore and Gibbons show how readers add to narratives, imagining the pictures, words, and transitions.
And then there’s Doctor Manhattan. Although his reflection of the comic book reader has been discussed in a few places, Jared Gardner describes it best: “Dr. Manhattan is capable of taking in past, present, and future in a glance, of moving back and forward between them effortlessly, even of making choices in the gaps between slivers of time that might impact if not the conclusion at least its ultimate meaning. Dr. Manhattan, that is, sees time like a comic reader” (188). In one scene, the god-like entity narrates that he will drop a photograph in twelve seconds, interspersing what he experiences with the mental count-down. However, what we see in the panels does not move linearly (Fig. 4). We see the photograph on the ground when he says, “TEN SECONDS NOW.” Next, he’s sitting with the photograph in-hand. Then he’s in the past, then looking at the photograph again. His ability to both perceive everything at once and progress linearly reflects the comic readers’ experience, a kind of god who is both brought into the world of the book and yet always detached from it. To us, every panel of Watchmen exists at once, just as every moment in time does for Dr. Manhattan.
And while that’s all interesting, it would be pretentious if done merely for post-modern, metafictional shenanigans. Fortunately, all of these choices are essential to the story Moore and Gibbons are trying to tell. They want us to see all the weird things that have been normalized in superhero comics, so that we appreciate what the characters and their actions mean subtextually. As a result, we follow the authors along as they point to the genre’s missing dimensions, its flaws, its logical endpoints, and its potential. Moore and Gibbons make the act of reading comics essential to the narrative because it reinforces that how and why we read comics isn’t detached from the genre and its implicit values. It’s a recognition that, in part, the medium is the message. And, of course, it shows that Watchmen’s narrative is, at its core, a critique of and rebellion against everything that inspired it.
I doubt this analysis breaks new ground for one of comics’ biggest and most-discussed books. However, it’s necessary for understanding how fundamentally Zack Snyder’s Watchmen fails to understand the narrative purpose and power of its source material, and how it thus fails as both an adaptation and its own text. Again, we have to focus on how the experiences of consuming Watchmen the book differ from consuming Watchmen the film. Moore and Gibbons encode the experience of reading comics to bolster their narrative aims. Snyder encodes the experience of being Zack Snyder to capture the mindset of a loyal fan, the exact mindset that Moore and Gibbons sought to disrupt.
Before showing how this manifests in the diegetic3 parts of Snyder’s Watchmen, we can look at the non-diegetic components—largely the second disc of the Collector’s Edition, containing over two long hours of extra content—for additional context. Across the four featurettes and 11 video journals, everyone who worked on the film demonstrates a near-obsession with connecting the movie’s world to our own. The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics tells the history of Moore and Gibbons’ comic, but with such reverence that it erases the medium’s history in favor of myths (note the irony). Namely, several talking heads discuss how Watchmen pushed the medium to grow up, how it took the superhero concept and blew it open in a way never done before.
The interviewees seem to forget that Moore came onto the scene with Marvelman,4 which checked most of the same boxes as Watchmen four years prior, albeit with an eye for Superman-style comics more so than Batman-style. Two years after that, Moore flexed his abilities to deconstruct and reinvent comic book characters with the first several issues of his run on Swamp Thing. Moore himself had covered this territory already, which isn’t even to mention others in the field, but that would demythologize Watchmen rather than encourage this revisionist history.
Similarly, discussions of the book are hilariously lacking in self-awareness. One interviewee says—no exaggeration—that Watchmen “is the Citizen Kane of comic books.” This canonization is antithetical to Watchmen‘s basic function: the end of an unquestioned canon. Watchmen works best and makes the most sense in its context, but this awkward cultural history strips it from its context. Rather than exploring Watchmen in all of its detail, questioning its place in history and seriously thinking about its subject matter, we see how Snyder experiences Watchmen. This featurette isn’t a history of the book, but rather an exploration of the history and purpose that Snyder and many Moore acolytes have accepted as a given. The reality is far more complex, a central point of the original text that these very people have overlooked in their adulation.
Equally indicative of this problem is Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World. Scientists who were advisers for the movie meticulously outline the technology and science depicted therein, effectively explaining piece by piece what does and does not require suspension of disbelief. Again, we don’t learn about the world of the movie or the book in all of its complexity as a story and cultural artifact; we learn about what Snyder finds interesting, what he thinks it means to make a loyal adaptation. He seems compelled to explain how real this story could be, how tied to our world his text is. This is why there’s such a fundamental difference between the book’s use of backmatter and the film’s use of its equivalent (i.e. special features): Moore uses backmatter to flesh out his world, whereas Snyder uses it to flesh out how he and other devotees view their sacred text. Moore uses it to connect and differentiate his story from its inspiration(s), and Snyder uses it to unquestioningly relate his movie to his, like, #1 fave comic.
Most bizarre, though, is Real Super Heroes: Real Vigilantes. This featurette contains interviews with members of the Alliance of Guardian Angels, a real group of vigilantes. They describe 1980s New York in apocalyptic terms, with descriptions of complex moral issues that might sound familiar to some anxious Americans this election season: “But you have to do something other than just call 911. To me, that is so weak!” Whoever edited this piece seems to recognize the connection between these guys and particularly Rorschach; images of the character are interspersed while Guardian Angels members speak. But just as this moment of awareness rears its head, another interviewee—portrayed as a relative authority on the subject—claims that even critics of the Guardian Angels would assume generally that they mean well. I guess that “critics” wouldn’t include Moore himself, who wrote the Comedian to show as bluntly as possible that vigilantes don’t put on a costume and fight poor people or “supervillains” for moral purposes. Again, we see not a consideration of the film’s themes and the questions they raise about power, morality, and the superhero genre, but rather Snyder’s simplistic reading of the superhero that likely stems from his enjoyment of the genre.
Interestingly, though, Snyder does have some insightful comments on the matter. He realizes that vigilantism has an “othering” quality, and that Rorschach has a violently psychopathic nature.5 He seems to acknowledge that Rorschach is not the respectable anti-hero that many readers envision. But then we begin to experience the diegetic narrative(s) of Snyder’s Watchmen. The video game presents the most comical dissonance between Snyder’s apparent understanding of the comic and the components of his actual text. Written by the book’s original editor, Len Wein, and advised by Gibbons, the game lets us actually be Rorschach as we…beat up convicts, then members of a street gang, then actual cops. All of this could be interesting, if it weren’t designed as an old-fashioned beat-em-up with increasingly complex and violent combos—and don’t forget the one-liners, like “What do you say we show Mr. Rorschach the shower facilities,” or, “We’ll fuck your face up for real!” The largely working class people that we mindlessly beat the crap out of are presented as fodder (Fig. 5). The game, as a result, plays like the exact opposite of what someone would think to make if they had just read Watchmen and knew what the word “theme” meant. The game reflects Snyder’s experience with the book, but not any experience that involves actual engagement with it.
Even Tales of the Black Freighter, the animated adaptation of the original book’s comic-in-a-comic, fails at its basic function. Regardless of whether it’s viewed on its own, in tandem with the Director’s Cut, or integrated in the Ultimate Cut, it serves no real purpose. In the book, we get its history, an understanding of its aesthetic and reflection of pop culture, which helps us understand the world in which it exists. In the movie, it can’t act this way because it lacks the context that it had in the book. The animation style does not carry the aesthetic implications because it’s generic rather than specific to an era or style. The meta-commentary on the medium is gone. Snyder merely takes the panels from the book and fills in the gutters between them with basic movement, losing the powerful relationship between reader and comic and replacing it with nothing new. Rather than provide the experience of being in the world of Watchmen, it provides the experience of being Zack Snyder, reading the book and making the basic animations in his head with soulless late-2000s stylistics.
The motion comic provides much of the same experience but for the actual panels of the book itself. The narration and animation are interesting as a different way to experience the comic, but much of the aforementioned effect that comes from reading Watchmen is lost. The symmetry of the panel layout (and other details) that splits Chapter V of the book is gone, for instance, when it could have been captured in frames, cuts, or movement. The distinct effects and impressions that are integral to the materiality of Watchmen don’t work here, detracting from the completeness of the comic’s experience. And really, much the same can be said for Snyder’s approach to the film itself. It has the same level of thoughtfulness and insight as a plagiarized paper: none except what is inherited from its sources.
The movie—as seen in the various cuts of the film—reflects the misplaced loyalty seen in the featurettes, video journals, and other previously discussed media. For example, in the video journals, Gibbons comments on the layers of detail Snyder has incorporated. We’re told that we need to watch the movie several times to catch all of the details, and this appears to reflect one of the book’s greatest assets: its density. But in the book, the details expanded the universe. There are leitmotifs like the shadow of a man and woman embracing, which causes Rorschach unease. Its recurrence reminds us of the impending nuclear war and the human cost. The reader can go through the book and find this image, correlate it to the events or narration/dialogue, and find themes and patterns. In the movie, the density amounts to easter eggs, like the giant elephant float advertising the Gunga Diner (Fig. 6). Again, in the comic, the details flesh out the world, and in the film they represent Snyder’s self-satisfying references. The important experience here doesn’t enhance the narrative, but rather hopes to endear itself to viewers by replicating what endeared the book to Zack Snyder.
The scenes themselves alternate between painstaking recreation and Snyder-y excess. For example, the panel where we see Doctor Manhattan’s massive clocklike creation on Mars is nearly duplicated by Snyder’s camera (Fig. 7). In contrast, the fight scenes are “finessed” with the director’s favorite action technique: speed-ramping, or alternating between slow and accelerated motion. He uses this to accentuate the violence, but it’s in favor of Snyder’s action movie sensibilities as seen in 300 rather than the world of the film. For example, SPOILERS, I GUESS? in each of the three cuts’ openings, we see the Comedian’s death in far greater detail. His fight with the home invader is extended and, well, action movie-like. But seeing how well the Comedian fights—while in keeping with the character—reveals exactly how well the invader fights, and the mystery person’s style. Once we start meeting the characters, it’s hard not to realize that the murderer is probably that one super athletic guy who talks like a supervillain. The action isn’t integral, and it isn’t even just superfluous. It actually undermines the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the event that kick-starts the entire plot. In the book, a detective implies that the invader must have been strong, but there’s enough room for uncertainty as to make it speculative for the reader. END SPOILERS…I GUESS
In total, it’s easy to see why some dedicated fans of the book loved the movie and some hated it. Many shared Snyder’s exuberance for seeing the panels translated to the screen, but many others saw that in his exuberance, Snyder loses the story’s heart. He loses the critical eye that places Watchmen in comic book history. He loses the touchingly human stories that drive the characters. He loses the medium-specific aspects that make it such a powerful book. In a sense, the film represents what Watchmen would have been were it the exact kind of book that Watchmen was meant to critique. The reason for this is that it’s the kind of movie that only a loyal fan could make, one who wants to share the experience of loving something unquestionably. However, Snyder might have picked the worst text to adapt in order to accomplish that.
How could such a medium-specific comic even be adapted, though? Well, Terry Gilliam appears to have had an ending in mind that would have certainly been…different, and at the very least challenging. But rather than look at what-ifs, a great counter-example to everything mentioned so far is one of the most-ignored parts of the Collector’s Edition: Under the Hood. Perhaps due to a solid script by Hans Rodionoff,6 this short film demonstrates exactly what Snyder could have accomplished. Rather than translate the content from the book to the screen, Rodionoff and director Eric Matthies adapt the material. In the comic, Under the Hood is an autobiography by Hollis Mason, the first Nite Owl, who describes his entry into masked vigilantism. This book-within-a-book serves multiple purposes. First of all, it shows how normalized super heroes have become in this society. Second, it reflects how, for lack of a better word, “sane” Mason is in this society. He’s not a sadist like the Comedian, or a Utopian narcissist like Veidt. He’s just some guy who grew up in New York with antiquated ideas about right and wrong.
In Moore and Gibbons’ book, excerpts from Under the Hood make up some of the backmatter. For the short film, Rodionoff and Matthies use two frame devices: first, a newscast contemporary to the events of Watchmen, where the anchor says they will show archival footage. This footage is the second frame, an interview with Mason following the release of his book. Already, these layers show that the writer and director understand the purpose of the backmatter and what it reveals about the world and that character. It captures that sense of normalization, of a costumed vigilante going public in his old age to capitalize on it. And, of course, actually seeing Mason’s blasé attitude toward his vigilantism captures his personality in a way perfectly suited for the medium, particularly with an actor as talented as Stephen McHattie.
Further, the frames emphasize how Under the Hood—and to a large extent the characters in this world—are historical documents. This allows Rodionoff and Matthies to capture the antiquity of Mason’s views on good and evil, the dichotomy he’s accepted and acted on in a way that is well-meant but bound to end in rebellion, as we see at the end of the movie’s opening credits when a rioter throws a molotov cocktail through a window spray-painted with “WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?” There are other nice touches too, like old black-and-white news footage of the first masked vigilante, the Hooded Justice; and then there are the 80s-style commercials for Veidt’s perfume, Nostalgia. Everything is placed in a historical context, and the material is perfectly adapted to the new medium to add all the nuance it had in the book, while adding to it with the benefits of film and time passed. And while this might just be me over-reading, I find it interesting that the news program overlays a picture of an actual comic book character, the Blue Beetle. Moore had used the Blue Beetle, a character DC had purchased from Charlton Comics, in his initial conception of Watchmen. However, Moore instead opted to make him an original character, the second Nite Owl, so Mason’s Nite Owl is in many ways a version of the Blue Beetle. The reference to that character as a character in the world of Watchmen poses some interesting questions to the viewer and distorts the relationship between our world and the diegesis, rather than trying to desperately separate and show the connections between them.
While Under the Hood isn’t likely to win awards for best short film, it rises above everything else that Snyder incorporated into his adaptation of Watchmen. It considers the purpose of the original material, its context, and the necessary changes to capture the original’s potency in a new medium. The product is closer to the source and more engaging, despite its changes at the surface level. Had this approach been incorporated into the other aspects of the film, it might have been at least memorable, if not as dynamic as its source material. Snyder’s Watchmen is a representation of the limits of loyalty, a dangerous strain in nerd culture today as it was in the 1980s. Such an approach is particularly inadequate for something as critical and self-reflexive as Moore and Gibbons’ seminal comic. With comic book movies being made as frequently as ever, Watchmen demonstrates an important principle: in order to understand and talk about something, you need to be critical of it. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have demonstrated that Snyder might not be the guy to do so, but hopefully his work will inspire a new generation to both embrace and analyze, rather than accept and lionize.
- For the rest of this article, when I talk about “the film” I will be referring to the larger text defined above: “the three cuts of the film, the special features, the game, and the motion comic.” This is for ease of reading. I will specify if I am referring specifically to “the movie” as one of or all of the three cuts.
- “Backmatter” is material that comes at the end of the main part of a comic book issue. Because Watchmen consists of 12 issues (called “Chapters” in the book), there are 12 instances of backmatter.
- “Diegetic” is a fancy way to say in-world, i.e. existing in the fictional world where the text takes place. So, for Watchmen, the diegetic components are the Theatrical Cut, Director’s Cut, Ultimate Cut, Tales of the Black Freighter, Watchmen: The End Is Nigh, Watchmen: The Motion Comic (kind of), and Under the Hood.
- For curious readers, Marvelman is now Miracleman due to a long and convuluted history that is best described by Bob Chipman (aka MovieBob).
- I want to state very clearly that psychopathy is not tantamount to being violent or “bad.” Rorschach is violent and psychopathic, and the two feed into each other for this character, but they are not inherently connected.
- I feel obligated to mention that Rodionoff wrote the script that became one of my favorite comic books, and perhaps the best fictional take on the life and works of H.P. Lovecraft.
- Gardner, Jared. Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012. Print.
- Moore, Alan, and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen. New York: DC Comics, 1987. Print.
- Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012. Print.