Watchmen: A Case Study of the Films of Zach Snyder

The release of renowned graphic novel, Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in 1986, was met with instant critical and financial success. It gained recognition as a literary accomplishment which transcended its status as a graphic novel into a work defined by critics, such as Time magazine, as one of the most important literary works of all time.

Having read the novel, I would probably not go so far as to say that it should be ranked among literature’s greatest accomplishments. However, I do appreciate the novel’s significance given its release during the Cold War era, and its continued relevance to societal issues in our contemporary society. I do believe the novel had a significant impact on societal reception of the graphic novel as a literary medium. In particular, the use of political satire, philosophical themes, and deeply flawed superhero protagonists certainly provided the public with a new and more mature superhero genre than had been previously written. Watchmen’s influence may have also been a contributing factor in the desire of contemporary audiences for a more relatable, relevant and thought-provoking superhero type film (for example, some have claimed that this was a key factor in the success of The Dark Knight trilogy).

When the filmic adaptation of Watchmen, directed by Zach Snyder, was released in 2009, it received neither the critical acclaim nor the financial success acquired by its original source material. Why was this so? When I first saw the film, my reaction was one of instant dislike. Aside from the beautifully crafted opening montage and some solid performances throughout, Zach Snyder’s interminable slow-motion shots, over-usage of montages, unremarkable characters and darkly coloured cinematography rendered the overall film utterly dull and joyless. The inherently apathetic nature of the film’s characters left me wondering why the comic had attracted so much acclaim upon its release. It is only after having read the graphic novel this past summer that I have found where exactly the fault lies: Zach Snyder was clearly not the appropriate director to adapt such a dense and thought-provoking book.

In Snyder’s defense, the adaptation of a novel such as Watchmen is not an easy task. In my opinion, it would have been more appropriate had the novel been adapted into a television mini-series, as there are several important characters, back-stories (including multiple flashbacks which seemed redundant in the movie), motifs and quotes which are of significance to the overall story, but are too numerous to hold one’s interest in a two-hour film.  An extended runtime on television would allow more plot elements to be used while maintaining the quality of the story and the entertainment value for the viewer. Instead, the film’s dialogue could be interpreted as a series of descriptions designed only for the purpose of explanation and back-story, which lengthened the plot progression and thereby impacted the viewer’s connection with the story.

Zach Snyder’s adaptation also suffered from the fact that he attempted to create a film that mirrored the original source material as much as possible, which ultimately led to a poor translation on screen. A comic book and a film are two very different mediums and, therefore, the elements of each should be taken into consideration when making an adaptation, as certain elements in a comic book do not possess the same effect when used in a movie. For example, Watchmen’s use of flashbacks, newspaper clippings and back stories enhanced both character and plot development, but in the film version, their use of said techniques in an almost identical manner, created an incoherence in the plotline, resulting viewer disengagement. 

I realize that this blog may seem to be focused on a film that many have probably forgotten considering the time that has passed since its release. However, the key message of this blog post is the fact that Watchmen could have been one of the greatest superhero films to date. A poignant story with memorable characters was all but lost due to directorial mishandling. This is particularly relevant because the same director is now in the process of recreating one of DC Comics’ most beloved stories: The Justice League. The Justice League does not possess a dark and pessimistic storyline, and if Zach Snyder were to adapt its renowned characters with a similar approach as Watchmen, The Justice League will comprise of unsympathetic, dull and inexplicably dismal characters, and as such would be unfaithful to the original source material. However, this remains to be seen until the film is released in 2018, but let us hope that Snyder will take a different approach to the Justice League than he did with Watchmen.