As homoerotic as 300 turned out to be, you would think director Zack Snyder would play up those elements in Watchmen. Still, Watchmen is less about sexuality and more about sex. Written in 1986, the graphic novel was intended, in part, to showcase the naiveté of Reaganism, and so it takes every opportunity to explore how vanilla sex just doesn’t exist in contemporary society.
Instead, we live in a world where 30-year-old men leave their wives for teenage jailbait, where 40-year-old men are impotent with even the hottest babe until they activate their kinkiness in leather costumes and where fifty-year-old women still get off on the old Tijuana bible portrayals of themselves from their sex-symbol days.
But let’s take a step back for a minute…
Watchmen is a superhero movie based on a famous twelve-issue comic (and later graphic novel) that deals with superheroes from a realistic perspective during the Cold War era.
We have certain notions about the genre that we just accept. We accept that there will be men and women cavorting around in spandex, because that’s just what they do. We accept that superheroes always prioritize the threat of the greater good before their own personal issues, no matter how unlike humanity that is.
We accept that there’s a line of morality that the superhero may walk very tightly, but ultimately he won’t fall over the audience-defined wrong side of it.
Traditionally, the superhero is the audience-identification character because he is the image of what we would like to be—wielding massive power, holding great influence over society, having women who adore us even as we’d push them away for duty’s sake—while speckled with enough faults to make the superhero feel human.
It’s this sort of transparent male wish-fulfillment quality that earns superhero comics their juvenile branding from critics (that, of course, and the target demographic).
The emphasis in Watchmen seems to be flipped—it doesn’t define its protagonists by the fact that they’re undeniably cool people doing super-heroic deeds, but it instead relies on the usually secondary personal issues and drama to define them. Undoubtedly, this will be an issue with some filmgoers who expect the type of escapist fantasy that superhero movies are known for.
There’s a simpler truth about Watchmen’s protagonists. These characters aren’t meant to be who we aspire to be—they’re meant to be who we are. That puts Watchmen squarely in the territory of dramatic art that seeks to tell us something about ourselves, but the film takes it a step further and uses the superhero framework to tell us the darker aspects of the human condition.
For some reason, it’s easier to accept a radioactive spider granting fantastic strength than it is to accept a single murder being justified to prevent mass murder. It’s a lot easier to accept a man in tights than it is to accept that love can be born of a rape attempt.
At other times, Watchmen shows us how easy it is for us to accept horrors we would normally recoil against, such as the masked protagonist Rorschach’s handling of a child predator during his superhero identity’s moment of birth.
As he adapted Alan Moore’s famous graphic novel into film, director Zack Snyder clearly understood the juxtaposition of Watchmen’s superheroes to traditional superheroes.
For instance, in the graphic novel, Moore depicts the superhero Adrian Veidt with the typical comic book utilitarian, ‘put-the-greater-good-first’ viewpoint.
The director has commonly referred to the Watchmen graphic novel as his bible during filming because of how close he tried to stay to the source material. But while Snyder gets the big concepts, he misses some of the smaller moments from the novel that most effectively deconstruct the concept of superheroes.
There’s no conversation between Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II on how every hero has lost a crime bust because they had to rush in the bathroom and couldn’t get out of their tights quickly enough. There’s no line from original masked avenger Hollis Mason about standing in a ridiculous outfit with tears in his eyes as people around died laughing, and no explanation about how privately-owned superhero Dollar Bill was killed in a shootout because his cape got caught in a bank’s revolving door.
Snyder’s largest deduction is the exclusion of the Black Freighter sequences. Tales of the Black Freighter is Watchmen’s story within a story; in the graphic novel we get to read along as a youth slouching by a newsstand in downtown New York reads a copy of this comic about a haunted pirate ship. While a structurally stylistic part of the graphic novel, these scenes were prime bait to be cut from the film and banished to the realm of DVD extras.
By removing them, the audience misses out on the newspaper headlines and the exposition of the news vendor that serve as our primary source of information on the progression toward nuclear war between the United States and the USSR. Snyder attempts to show us the countdown to midnight through new scenes with egregious Nixon and Kissinger look-alikes within the president’s war room but fails at keeping the audience grounded and showcasing the escalating tension.
It should be noted that it’s odd to argue about missing content in a two hour and 40 minute film. The problem lies in inherent difficulties with directly transcribing comic book dialogue into film dialogue like screenwriters David Hayter and Snyder have done here.
Actors adhering to a natural cadence of conversation are inevitably going to read through all the words on one page of a comic fairly quickly, so there’s an illusion of lost exposition when your script sticks so closely to the graphic novel.
The major change to the script involves the expansion on the theme of alternative energy sources, along with a particular part near the end that many a fanboy have cried foul about already. But once again, Snyder shows his impressive command of the source material by recognizing that a change must be made in order for the story’s message to be relevant in modern times; he’s able to make that change while maintaining the themes that Moore set up in the graphic novel over 20 years ago.
So, Watchmen possesses a bundle of ambition and mostly succeeds, especially in the visual department. However, there’s no doubt that this film is going to be picked to death on the internet either for lack of action or for spotty acting by a few particulars. But it’s a fun ride that will definitely have you talking on the way out. Just don’t drink anything for a few hours beforehand; it’s a bladder buster for sure.