Watchmen, the landmark comic series from writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, manages to be many things, all at once. Cold War paranoia disguised as a superhero whodunit. A defining growing-up moment for the art form. A deconstruction of the idea of a comic book in general. A guiding light for the angriest people on the internet to read the exact wrong way. Like its Doctor Manhattan, Watchmen exists in many times, many moods, many dimensions at the same time. But the one thing it is most definitely not…is a badass action story. Its heroes are not slick ass-kickers, not ripped Spartan warriors, not CGI set-pieces tailor-made for big-screen trailer shots. Mostly, they’re ordinary, arguably disturbed people putting on latex and leather to take out their own internal problems on an idea of injustice. Like Iain Thomson wrote in his “Deconstructing the Hero” essay, “Watchmen develops its heroes precisely in order to ask us if we would not, in fact, be better off without heroes.”
Which is why the decision to have Zack Snyder helm the film adaptation was the exact choice that doomed the project from the start. Because the movie turns ten this month, because Damon Lindelof is currently developing a TV series for HBO, and mostly because nothing ends, Adrian, especially not the comics discourse, I rewatched the Watchmen and found it fascinating how Snyder technically got it completely right while simultaneously getting it all wrong.
It’s especially intriguing because in the years following Watchmen, we got to see what Snyder would do with the actual name-brand DC heroes through Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and, ultimately, about 60% of Justice League depending on who you ask. It’s essentially a reverse Alan Moore situation. The comics writer originally pitched Watchmen as a noir murder mystery featuring established names from DC’s recently-acquired Charlton Comics line, but the powers that be asked him to use his own creations once they realized Moore planned to kill or horrifically corrupt most of them by story’s end.
What Snyder eventually did with the Super/Bat men of the world is illuminating. Your mileage may vary when it comes to Snyder as a storyteller, but what was clear through his later trio of DC Comics movies was that the filmmaker truly believes superheroes are—and this is a highly technical term—cool as mother effing shit. He might think caped crusaders are best off moody, and dour, and angry, but Snyder still loves them with the enthusiasm of a kid smashing action figures together. You see it in Clark Kent learning to fly with a mixture of terror and elation in Man of Steel. In the warehouse fight from Dawn of Justice that turns Ben Affleck‘s Batman into a one-man wrecking crew. In the many, many visual homages to Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns that pop up during Snyder’s showdown between Batman and Superman. And more than love them, Snyder, ultimately—despite making them killers, sadsacks, and drama queens—admires them; you’ll remember the shot of Superman descending from on high to save flood victims in Batman vs. Superman, one of the more unsubtle Christ comparisons in recent memory.
This sense also permeates Snyder’s Watchmen, and it’s the exact reason the movie feels so wonky. The common argument against the film is that it stuck too slavishly close to the source material, and this isn’t exactly wrong. Besides an ending that places the destructive blame on Doctor Manhattan instead of a squid monster from outer space, the movie does, beat by beat, panel by exact panel, follow the graphic novel. So technically, the script from David Hayter and Alex Tse is telling you a story, like the comic, that believes the world might be better off without people dressing in costume to fuck up muggers.
But at no point do I believe Snyder himself shares this view, even while telling that exact story. The movie tells you one thing but shows you another; there’s a cognitive dissonance throughout that keeps it from ever gelling. Jackie Earle Haley‘s Rorschach—a right-wing psychopath who literally dies because of stubborness—is out here doing dramatic superhero landings in the rain. Jeffrey Dean Morgan‘s Comedian—a murderer and rapist—is leaping from airships in high-def slo-mo to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s jaunty-ass “I’m Your Boogeyman.” When Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) break Rorschach out of prison, they’re suddenly, two hours into the movie, Neo and Trinity from The Matrix. Their sex scene—which should carry the incredibly sad subtext that these two humans can’t connect physically without a near-death adrenaline spike—is mostly just un-sexy in its attempt to be X-Tremely Sexy. If Watchmen came out in 2019, the headline “This Nite Owl Fucks” would be everywhere.
Really, it comes down to whether you think it’s a critique or a compliment that Zack Snyder can’t help himself from Always. Kicking. Ass. Here, I’m trying to get across a bit of both. I really do find Snyder’s films—Watchmen included!—dynamic on a visual level. There’s a reason trailers for Zack Snyder movies always rule; the dude has an uncanny knack for framing shots that are just cool. They’re cool shots in cool movies, and they’d all make cool coffee table books one day.
But the characters in Watchmen shouldn’t be cool—and you certainly shouldn’t want to be them—and that’s the beat Snyder missed by a mile, even if the movie does succeed purely as a slick action flick. He would, of course, disagree; in a 2014 interview, the filmmaker said, “The whole movie is a satire. It’s a genre-busting movie.” But those words ring hollow now, after he went on to create actual superhero stories that looked strikingly like his satire. So what kind of storyteller, if not Snyder—king of the badass superhero—could have pulled this off? Hard to say, but I do think, if you look hard enough, there’s a clue in what Alan Moore himself wrote in the intro to the Graffiti Classics Watchmen hardcover about finally finishing the 12-part story.
“Not without some irony, it had satisfied my appetite for super-heroes. Like the bottle of perfume in the story, my nostalgia for the genre cracked and shattered somewhere along the way…For better or worse, the ordinary, non-telepathic, flightless humanoids hanging out on their anonymous street corner of WATCHMEN had come to seem more precious and interesting than the movers of rivers and shakers of planets.”