Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen retains an incredible amount of content from its sprawling source material and is overwhelmingly detailed in its recreation of the book’s panels. And yet, the film is a dismal failure transforming a politically provocative piece of literature into a Sin City-esque adolescent fantasy.
This is certainly not surprising. Zack Snyder has to this point only managed to direct the moronic, hyperkinetic aesthetic monstrosities Dawn of the Dead and 300. Though he has a knack for creating arresting images, he also shares a dunderheaded, masculinist-hyperactive-film-schooled directorial style with such directors as Guy Ritchie and Tom Tykwer. 300 in particular proved Zack Snyder to be a political black hole, reproducing the fascist, racist and homophobic qualities of Frank Miller’s graphic novel in his slavish adaptation without batting an eyelid or flexing a brain muscle. Watchmen should have been different though: Zack Snyder wasn’t slavishly adapting source material as politically repugnant as 300. He was adapting one of the most groundbreaking graphic novels of all time. So where did it all go wrong?
French New Wave director François Truffaut famously opined that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because scenes of war inevitably thrill the audience more than they repel the audience. While it might seem somewhat esoteric to quote a French New Wave director in the context of a Hollywood superhero film, in some ways Alan Moore’s work shares much in common with the New Wave. Like Truffaut and Godard’s films, Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a self-conscious critique of its genre, attempting to find a new language incorporating a more complex philosophical approach into its medium. One would hope that Zack Snyder’s Watchmen would be able to find a new cinematic language for superheroes but instead he opts for the type of shallow, sharply edited, glossy ultra-violence so prevalent in Hollywood action cinema. I know what some of you might be thinking: But all of that violence is in the novel! What is the difference? Well the difference between a still panel and a moving image is that the former invites more contemplation than the latter. In the comic, when Rorschach breaks the fingers of a man in a New York bar in order to get information, the reader lingers over the image registering the pain of the victim’s face and the fear in the eyes of the bar’s patrons. Movies don’t allow the same amount of reflection. A movie camera easily transforms violence from a questionable moral act into an exciting piece of entertainment. Also, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a Hollywood film to reconsider its approach to action. The Bourne trilogy and the recent Batman films are very recent examples of Hollywood films adopting stylistic traits such as handheld camera, staccato editing and haphazard fight choreography in order to give their action some weight. Importantly too, those films dared to question the morality of their vigilante protagonists’ actions. In Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, Rorschach comes off as more of a lovable hard-ass than the right-wing psychopath that he clearly is in the graphic novel.
There are plenty of flaws in the film to nitpick at: the expository dialogue, the cardboard acting, the dubious music choices (99 Luftballooons playing in an up-market restaurant? My Chemical Romance covering Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row? What the fuck?). But the broader and most damning thing I can say about Watchmen is that even though almost everything in the graphic novel makes it to the movie version, Zack Snyder has robbed the Watchmen of any depth. Under the Zack Snyder touch violence becomes action, sex becomes pornography, childhood traumas become origin stories, complex emotions become sound bites, global destruction becomes decoration and humanity gets sorted into heroes and villains. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a plea for comics to grow up; Zac Snyder’s facile film version has pulled the Hollywood action film back into puberty.
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Mr. Freedom (William Klein, 1969)
Did you know that the definitive postmodern film on superheroes as a commentary on American foreign policy was actually made 17 years before Alan Moore even wrote Watchmen? William Klein’s Mr Freedom is a more than adequate cinematic substitute for Watchmen. Look out for Serge Gainsbourg who pops up at the end of this clip. The film is difficult to track down but worth the effort.
The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)
Whether you like the film or not, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was an honest engagement of the superhero genre to address the contemporary political climate in America in the Bush era. In some ways, The Dark Knight is a better adaptation of Moore’s Watchmen than the actual Watchmen adaptation.