Zack Snyder is well known for his film adaptations of comic books – 300, Man of Steel, and his upcoming Batman / Superman film all, of course, started as comic books. Perhaps he was the obvious choice to film what is often called the greatest comic of them all -Alan Moore’s 1985 masterpiece The Watchmen. Attempts had been made to film this story before; directors who had been involved with the project before Snyder included Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass, and all had withdrawn, creating the idea that The Watchmen was impossible to film. That Snyder finished the film at all, then, is tribute to him; that the film itself is so good is astonishing.
The mid-eighties saw a huge shift in how comic books were created and perceived. Two artists in particular, Moore and Frank Miller (responsible for Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, 300, Sin City and more) were responsible for making the form more complex, darker, more adult. If reflection theory suggests that art mirrors to some extent the world from which it comes, then these comic books perhaps imitate a time which was defined by the last violent spasms of the cold war and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust. This film, of course, did not appear until 2009, 24 years after the original comic book, so some of that relevance has been lost. Indeed, in the move from page to screen, much has been lost, and the film is less clever and less ambitious than the book; but the stories and characters retain much of their power and even now, we can see how the influence of The Watchmen (and Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns) has shaped the better superhero narratives of the past decades.
What are superhero films for? Well, obviously, it depends on the superhero – Superman and Wolverine are two very different beasts – but there are certain conventions which we can identify. Essentially, in Proppsian terms, superheroes are the narrative ‘good guys’ who save humanity time after time. Even when they have weaknesses, whether it be kryptonite in Superman’s case or a tendency towards gloomy introspection for Batman, the audience are secure in a diegesis where the good guys will always (or usually; superhero narratives were often a little more complex than they were given credit for) do what is right and where they will always triumph in the end. As such, these stories reflect a world where morality is simple; good guys and bad guys. It is no surprise that the Golden Age of Comic Books coincided with World War 2; a time when such simple, or simplistic, morality was needed to shore up patriotic belief in one’s own nation and cause.
More modern narratives, often constructed under the influence of film noir, tend to seek to construct a more complex and nuanced sense of morality, perhaps to reflect a world where people are less likely to cleave to the certainties of religion or patriotism. The Watchmen was the narrative which, more than any other, reimagined the superhero for this new world. It represents a complete act of genre revisionism and we can see its influence today in films where the superheroes are somewhat less than heroic – Kick-Ass, for example – or where the world is seen to be more morally complex than a simple binary of good and evil.
The narrative centres around a group of masked crimefighters. They have no supernatural or extraordinary powers (with one exception) and rely on speed and strength to defeat criminals. We see that this is no normal superhero caper when the story opens with the murder of one of the group, The Comedian. Already, the representation of the ‘hero’ has shifted; these people are only slightly less vulnerable than the rest of us. This shift in representation changes much more, though, when we delve into the Comedian’s backstory. He attempts to rape another of the superheroes; he shoots dead the mother of his own baby in Vietnam; he might be responsible for killing John F Kennedy; he does very shady work for the US government. In general, he enjoys murder, mayhem and violence on a grand scale. He is most definitely not a clean-cut ‘good guy,’ or any sort of good guy at all, and yet, he is one of our heroes. His iconic smiley face badge is splattered with his blood after he dies; Snyder follows it in (his very characteristic) slow-mo all the way down until it hits the ground alongside the Comedian himself. It gets passed around some of the other heroes until it is finally buried with the Comedian. We see it repeated at the end of the film, now on a news reporter’s t-shirt, the blood replaced by tomato ketchup. Snyder is highlighting this as the symbol of the entire film; the mix of happiness and violence, life and death, good and evil, the shadowy middle ground which is the world of The Watchmen. And, The Comedian would have us believe, the world of modern America – he is semiotically associated with the American flag and describes himself as the personification of the American Dream.
So, we start with a superhero who is a murderous, cynical, rapist. He’s the least sympathetic (by some way) of the ‘good guys’ in the film but he is by no means the only one who is seriously messed up. The others variously exhibit sociopathy, misogyny, misandry, impotency, narcissism, alcoholism, addiction, solipsism, masochism, psychopathy, promiscuity and sadism. And one of them, Rorschach, smells really bad. Indeed, Rorschach appears to be the heart of the group; the one member who never compromises his moral vision. He is utterly dedicated to the fight against evil, and he sees evil everywhere. He is deeply misanthropic and, in particular, misogynistic – his mother was an abusive prostitute and Rorschach is seriously affected by his memories of her. In his ‘normal’ life he is Walter Kovacks, a near-derelict, borderline-insane bum who reads right-wing propaganda and habitually predicts the end of the world. As ‘Rorschach’ he is basically a hard-boiled noir figure, generally framed in isolation and in chiaroscuro.
He is in ways a typically hypermasculine, uncompromising figure (as are several of the others – these are all tough guys) but his backstory reveals him as a very damaged character and by the end his inability to compromise his morality appears more like a liability than an aspect of heroism. He needs his superhero identity to give meaning and structure to his life; when he cries ‘Give me back my face’ after being unmasked, we realise that he is in flight from his ‘real’ identity and is in fact quite a pitiful figure. It’s not that he won;t compromise; it’s that he doesn’t know how to.
He’s not the only one whose life is rather empty without his secret identity. Nite Owl, the Batman-like alter ego of Dan Dreiberg, starts a relationship with Silk Spectre, another of the heroes. He cannot perform sexually, however, and this impotence is surely representative of the exact opposite of what a male superhero should be. He can only perform once they have reverted to their superhero identities and it becomes clear that, like Rorschach, he is incomplete without his secret identity; he is more comfortable and effective – more potent – in his costume than out of it. (He admits as much himself. ‘I’m tired of being afraid… afraid of war, of the mask killer. Of this damn suit and how much I need it.’)
Clearly, then, the representations of superheroes are being changed in The Watchmen. The heroes are more deeply drawn, the violence is more realistically brutal, actions have more believable consequences. The story does more than this though. Postmodern theorists talk about ‘Grand Narratives’ or ‘metanarratives’ which tend to apply to our view of life. One such narrative might be that human history is generally moving towards a better state and that what is ‘good’ will eventually triumph over what is ‘bad.’ Superhero films, obviously, support this metanarrative by showing good triumphing over evil and the world as a fundamentally predictable, benevolent place. All of this certainty and predictability is removed in The Watchmen. One character, Doctor Manhattan (a superhuman figure created by a nuclear accident), a man with Godlike powers of transformation and manipulation, says of his girlfriend ‘She tells me I’m like a God now. I tell her I don’t think there is a God’ and this reflects the atheistic, existential uncertainty of the film’s diegesis. By the end of the film, we have no idea who the good guys are or whether there is any such thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ There is no guarantee that the heroes live or even die, or that criminals are punished. The criminals and the heroes, in fact, are the same people. And in this regard, in this challenging of conventional generic structures and moral ideologies, the film is very postmodern (though not even nearly to the same extent as the original comic book.)
Zack Snyder makes a very good attempt at the impossible with The Watchmen; a huge amount of what made the original comic book so special has been lost, and yet enough remains to make it one of the best ‘superhero’ films ever.