In the run-up to, and wake of, the release of Watchmen, it has become common currency to say that adapting Zach Snyder, et al undertook a massive challenge in adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ complex, sprawling medium- and genre-defining work for the screen.

But I’m going to suggest that they actually undertook an even more massive challenge: adapting Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ complex, sprawling medium- and genre-defining work for the screen – and completely missing its point.

If you haven’t seen or read Watchmen and/or don’t know the story:
a)    where have you been for the last 25 years?
b)    Spoiler warning.

Actually, I take b) back. I can’t do anything to spoil this film that wasn’t already done during its production.

Watchmen cover dr manhattan

Based on his filmography to date, Zack Snyder seems to have three affinities in his work. First, he likes apocalyptic settings (consider the post-societal zombie chaos of Dawn of the Dead, the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it mass-suicide pact plot of 300, and now Watchmen, with its doomsday clock set permanently at five to midnight). Second, he likes to adapt other peoples’ work (Dawn of the Dead is a remake; 300 and Watchmen are adaptations). Normally, I wouldn’t dwell on source-to-final-product comparisons, but I think Snyder’s remake/adapt-only resume makes it fair. And third, he tends to equate violence with authority.

This last point is perhaps the one that deserves the most attention. In Dawn of the Dead, it at least makes sense. Key to the zombie genre is the failure of any centralized authority or social narrative. (Side note: within the genre this theme is dealt with most directly and interestingly in Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which is why I’m more forgiving of its flaws than many.) Violence becomes a way to reestablish some semblance of what you could call, for lack of a better term, natural order: you can kill someone and make sure they stay dead. (More on all this here.) But Snyder’s remake omits the social context that makes Romero’s Dawn of the Dead resonant. What we end up with is a movie without contrast, a movie that’s violent just because it can be. Not bad, just thoughtless.

In 300, violence is the raison d’etre for an entire society. It’s hard to lay too much blame at Snyder’s video-assist monitor here, either; he’s being faithful to his the source material, Frank Miller’s graphic novel, where the individual is lost in the phalanx and “fascist aesthetics celebrate the ecstatic and transcendent purity of death.” (Thanks, Carol.) I earlier referred to Snyder’s 300 as an adaptation, and that is perhaps inaccurate. It would more correctly be called a transliteration, a(n ironically) slavish panel-for-panel, word-for-word reproduction of Miller’s book, without any real consideration given to the differences between the two media. Again, the most apt word to describe 300, despite its technical achievements, seems to me to be “thoughtless.”

Which brings us to Watchmen. One of the key ideas in Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen is that the idea of the superhero (at least, as considered in a “real world” context) is inherently fascist. Putting on a mask, rejecting the consensus of society and meting out your own justice – taken to its logical conclusion, as it is in Watchmen, it leads to a holocaust. And it’s a holocaust that the costumed heroes of Watchmen are powerless to prevent (“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”), because they’re all complicit in the system that brought it about.

dr manhattan mars 2

There are references to fascism, Nazism and perverted Nietzschean and Randian philosophy throughout Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen, not least in their adaptation of Steve Ditko’s The Question into Rorschach. What they were doing, they were doing consciously, and with conscious intent. They were telling a story about fascism, not a fascist story. (Side note: there’s obviously much more to Watchmen than this one trope – its formal boldness, genre playfulness, originality and  expansion of the accepted limits of the medium are all equally important – just not here.)

Zack Snyder, on the other hand, is telling a fascist story.

Violence has ultimate authority in Snyder’s Watchmen in terms of the plot, where the tempering, introspective and contrasting (there’s that word again) elements of the graphic novel are stripped away (Rorschach’s visit to Ozymandias in the opening chapter is especially curious). All the characters that have succeeded have succeeded through violence, and those who have failed (most notably Nite Owl) have failed because they’re too afraid to embrace violence. It’s only when Nite Owl (with the help of Silk Spectre) brutally beats a gang of muggers that he’s able to begin to assert himself.

That fight scene also highlights the fact that Snyder’s Watchmen privileges violence in terms of its production, as well. Bones snap through skin directly into the camera. Necks snap. Knives go through necks. It’s not really a fight – it’s a series of barely-motivated murders.

And Snyder’s camera loves it. His gore sequences take place in gynecological slow motion – a detached prodding and peering that removes body parts (both figuratively and literally) from the person to whom they belong. He lingers on the effects that allow him to show vicious injuries, not on the effects of injuries. He applies the same aesthetic to the sequence that recounts the attempted rape of the (Golden Age) Silk Spectre. Her beating comes in whooshes of slow motion that paradoxically leave no time for us to identify or empathize with her, or to consider the contextual horror of what’s happening. It’s all about the action. It’s all about the act. And the act is an act of violence.

By the time Snyder’s sluggish 163-minute narrative finally got around to revealing the inscription that reads, “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” I had only one thought: Already there, Zack. Already there.


dr manhttan mars

Ian Driscoll also has a short story about that sex scene in the Owlship: no.

6 replies »

  1. The main flaw I can find in Watchmen is that it’s too faithful to the comic. Alan Moore himself considered it unfilmable; I guess he didn’t consider an almost panel-for-panel translation. Almost no room for surprise in this adaptation, only minor tweaks.
    As for your article, I don’t think this is a fascist story. For starters, I disagree with your definition of fascism, which is not about vigilante outlaws but about authoritarianism and state-sponsored terror. Furthermore, with two exceptions the superheroes here are not part of the “fascist” Nixon government: they are outlaws themselves, and irrelevant. Part of the point of the movie — and the comic — is that their childish superhero antics are irrelevant, as Ozymandias says in the end. “Grow up; the best thing you did was failing to interfere” (not an exact quote).
    What of the two superheroes who *are* part of the government, and could therefore support your thesis? Well, the Comedian is depicted as an unsympathetic character, a rapist and baby-killer, an assassin, a “Cold War agent” of the worst kind, and we’re clearly not supposed to like him. Dr. Manhattan is more nuanced (just like in the comic), but even him grows uninterested with mankind, our government and our eventual fate. Hardly fascistic.
    I think the idea that superheroes are a ridiculous idea is effectively conveyed in the movie. Though maybe it’s missed in the upcoming action toys spin-off I hear they are planning. Oh, well.
    I think this is the kind of adaptation that, regardless how it was made, it would have angered fans. Too faithful, too little faithful, too mild, too violent, alien squid, no alien squid, etc.
    Maybe I just question if it needed to be made. If every iconic comic book must be necessarily adapted by Hollywood. But I don’t think this adaptation was a failure, or particularly bad.


  2. Hi Ian,
    Thanks for a very thoughtful article. It is incredibly strange that Snyder almost pathologically refuses to engage the queasiness of the comic. I’m fairly certain he understands himself to be fixing the story, making it palatable for the general film-going public, which, in and of itself, proves the main concerns of Moore and Gibbon to be disturbingly present. I’m not really sure what Snyder thinks he’s ended up with.
    side note to Android: Endorsing coercion as a legitimate tool of authority, in its most naked forms of physical violence and its more specious, Foucauldian incarnations, is the textbook definition of fascism. I don’t really know what to tell you if you want it to mean something else, except to stop “correcting” people when they are, in fact, using it correctly.
    sorry, back to Ian: looking forward to that fan fiction, baby!


  3. Weed: chill, man. No need to get defensive: I merely disagreed with Ian’s abuse of the term “fascism”, which is related to the use of force but not defined exclusively by it. Lone rangers such as the Watchmen cannot be fascist, just as Mussolini and Hitler were not lone rangers. Regardless of your claim, the use of force or violence is not “textbook fascism”; I’m not the first one to disagree with this abuse of the term.
    As for your first paragraph, I stand by my assertion that fans wouldn’t be satisfied by any adaptation, really. I thought Watchmen ultimately worked better in comicbook rather than film form because of its pace.
    However, as adaptations go, I think Snyder did a pretty good job of cutting the fat (pirate story, “under the hood” text) and leaving the meat (ozymandias plot, rorschach, dr. manhattan’s dylemma).


  4. fas·cism (fāsh’ĭz’əm) Pronunciation Key
    often Fascism
    A system of government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism.
    A political philosophy or movement based on or advocating such a system of government.
    Oppressive, dictatorial control.
    Seems pretty clear cut here: fascism.


  5. My big issue with THE WATCHMEN film may very well be the result of the same problem of adaptation that turned “a story about fascism” into “a fascist story”: namely, the removal of the audience member from the feedback loop.
    Comics and graphic novels are inherently participatory, requiring the reader to fill in gaps of space and time left by the still images and the gutters between them. The film medium does that work for the audience, leaving them passive observers. This really cripples a story like “The Watchmen”, which was a mystery whose clues were threaded through deep artwork and even deeper text. The book required the reader to pick up on tiny clues and essentially solve the whodunnit themselves. With that participation removed, audiences of THE WATCHMEN were left watching the characters solve the whodunnit. In doing so, the limitations of the original story were revealed. Yep, when it comes down to it, THE WATCHMEN is a story about a cataclysmic crime which is solved by… recognizing letterhead. The reveal is the same as in the book, but falls flat because simple mysteries are fun to solve, but not fun to watch being solved.
    Similarly, when the audience member is no longer in the driver’s seat, imagining themselves confronted with the same moral, ethical, and physical dilemmas as the characters, the experience changes dramatically. I suppose I can put it this way: “When I do it, it’s superheroism. When somebody else does it, it’s fascism.” You can see the effects of this duality at work in the U.S. right now, with conservative pundits like Glen Beck decrying the fascism of Obama’s economic plan after having ignored 8 years of suppression and belligerent nationalism.


  6. Watchmen is NOT a very good comic. It is easy to see which emotions we are supposed to feel, but it is all too fragmented for us to actually feel them.
    However, it is quite easy to see what kind of emotions the comic is TRYING to ewoke. And when I went to the cinema, I actually expected that the movie at least tried to give me an experience with some kind if relation to the original work. In short, I expected “SALO: The 120 Days of Sodom” with superheroes in it.
    What a disapointment. It was the same with the Judge Dread movie. They took an ironic story about a fascist cop, and removed the ironic bit.


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