So I Just Saw Watchmen

It’s perhaps odd that I’ve spent so much time recently pondering Zack Snyder’s superhero movies when I don’t have any plans to see the most recent one (and I expect that unless something drastically changes at Warner Bros. I won’t be seeing any of his future work either).  I suspect this fascination is related to the same impulse that led me to spend so much time picking over and deconstructing my understanding of white American evangelicalism a couple years ago; the realization of faults in a thing you were previously uncritically invested in is a powerful experience, and it takes a little bit of time to sort through in a way that feels personally satisfying.  This isn’t quite as earthshaking as the evolution of my faith; I don’t feel emotionally invested in Batman and Superman, and Snyder’s oeuvre isn’t even that important to me, but his work does strike me as a particularly fertile starting point for discussing popular attitudes about superheroes as a cultural touchstone.

I had to spend part of my spring break by myself while Rachael was out of town at a writing workshop, and the solitude afforded me an opportunity to binge superhero movies one day.  One of the movies that I picked up from the video store was Snyder’s adaptation of the Alan Moore and Dave Gibson series Watchmen.  I had seen this movie in theaters when it first came out back in 2009, but I hadn’t revisited it since then.  My impression of it back then was that it was a perfectly fine adaptation, but there was nothing about it that really enhanced the story in any way; the Watchmen series is so grounded in the idea of exploring storytelling techniques that can only be done in a sequential art format that even someone like Snyder, who has a slavish devotion to recreating iconic visuals from his source material, can’t really translate everything that’s structurally great about the original series.

This movie does look a lot like the comic, at least. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

After watching the film again, I still have much the same opinion.  As I finished it, the most salient thought I had was, “I want to re-read Watchmen.”  I’ve read the series three times, and it continues to be a really rich text to explore; maybe after I finish reading through Sandman I’ll spend a couple months working through Watchmen (that series is only twelve issues, so it won’t be nearly the same level of commitment).  The main reason I want to re-read it now is because in Snyder’s adaptation, which is remarkably faithful to the story beats and visual language of the comic, all the really interesting bits were traceable back to Moore’s original ideas.  Spots where Snyder adds his own embellishments, like the over-the-top violence of the fight scenes (Snyder invariably fails to convey an emotional tone appropriate to a given instance of violence; he simply enjoys the spectacle of breaking bodies too much to ever regard any moment of violence as a purely negative, repulsive thing) rarely have anything worthy of significant attention.  The only exception I might note is in the title sequence (when the movie first came out, most everyone agreed that it was the highlight of the film) which operates as a highlight reel of key moments in twentieth century American history that were significantly altered by the presence of costumed crime fighters in Watchmen‘s universe.  It’s a very compact way to convey much of the background information that’s only communicated in the Watchmen comic in the in-universe texts that conclude each issue.  Otherwise, everything about Snyder’s adaptation feels like empty imitation without fully understanding the critique that Moore and Gibson were originally making.

The thing about Watchmen is that it’s a story about a group of people who, instead of working out their various mental health issues with professional help, dress up in flashy costumes and beat up people in a shallow attempt to impose order on their lives.  It’s the most crystalline example of Alan Moore’s persistent criticism of superhero stories as immature power fantasies that shouldn’t be indulged beyond childhood (Moore’s a curmudgeon, but his assessment of most of the genre isn’t inaccurate), and it continues to amaze me that Watchmen is a text that Snyder loves enough to adapt with the same care as works by Frank Miller, who demonstrates regularly that he completely misunderstands Moore’s critique (or that he just doesn’t care; I’m not going to pretend to know Miller’s mind) of the genre.  Where Moore gave us a character like Rorschach, who embodies the shallow, brutal, juvenile sense of justice that Moore is critiquing, Miller presents a Batman who’s remarkably similar and celebrates him.  I don’t think Snyder really recognizes how the two creators are different.

One thing about Watchmen that I always remember is that the series’s origin involved Moore pitching a story to DC that involved using a collection of characters from Charlton Comics who had been acquired when the smaller publisher had folded into DC.  DC’s editorial team liked the story, but they were uncomfortable with Moore using the Charlton characters because, in typical Moore fashion, they would have been significantly damaged in the course of the story.  Watchmen emerged as a way to tell the story using a set of pastiche characters who are clear analogs to the Charlton cast in a continuity distinct from the larger DC universe.  DC cared about protecting the brand of these newly acquired characters; it stands in stark contrast to the current attitude of Warner Bros. which greenlit Snyder’s cynical, damaged versions of Batman and Superman for a major movie without considering how this might influence the characters’ brands.  I bring this up not as a direct critique of Snyder’s version of the characters (if he wants to explore a world where Superman’s a narcissist and Batman’s a sociopathic killer, then that’s not intrinsically a bad thing), but as a note on how differently the people with control over these characters are treating them now than they did three decades ago.

Anyway, Watchmen is still watchable (it might be one of Snyder’s better movies, though that’s faint praise since most of the good parts are translated from an exceptional source material), but it’s really just a pale imitation of the far superior comic series.


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