Watch this as soon as you can…
With the release of HBO’s Watchmen series, there is no better time to take a retrospective look at Zack Snyder’s Watchmen from 2009. Adapted from Alan Moore’s DC Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, there is a lot to like about this film. It is not your typical superhero story, with a bold opening, subversion of superhero tropes throughout, and an original style of cinematography to impress from start to finish. You may not be enjoying the HBO series, but do not let that dampen your enjoyment of this underrated gem.
One rarely feels the need to talk about the credits in a review of a movie, but you have to with Watchmen. It is a novel idea: the credits provide 3D snapshots of the relevant context leading up to the film’s main events, with the camera dollying through them. All of this plays out to the sound of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin'”, the first of many superb soundtrack choices. This is a brilliant choice for two reasons. One, the relevant context depicted is an alternative history, so history is changing. Two, it is a song about political change for the better, so there is a sad irony, a defeatism, to it being played as we watch this alternative history take such a dark route. It is a great way to get the audience up to speed without relying on exposition. Many DCEU fans hoped Snyder, the director of Watchmen and many of the DCEU films, would use this idea to world-build as an alternative to Marvel’s post-credit scenes, and it is easy to see why.
Off the back of a powerful, shocking opening, Watchmen hooks you from the start. It is one of the superhero genre’s greatest weaknesses that one always feels like “the superhero won’t die”, no matter what happens. Yet, Watchmen opens with the cold blooded murder of a superhero; a murder that serves as a springboard for the noir style story to come. Not only is The Comedian murdered, but he is murdered brutally, with some painful choreography during the fight, and he is murdered in his own home, in his dressing gown, when you would expect a superhero to be at their safest. The opening feels like a violation of everything we have come to expect about superhero films, making it one of the most memorable openings in the genre as a whole.
This subversion of the superhero genres continues throughout, particularly with The Comedian. Watchmen is R-Rated, ten years before R-Rated superhero films were in vogue. It is easy to see why. After the brutal murder, we a flashback of The Comedian as he attempts to rape Silk Spectre. We also see him murder a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child. Changing our perspective of the opening murder immediately, we have to wonder: this particular superhero had it coming, right? We also see him getting drunk and crying, using his old arch nemesis as a shoulder to cry on, changing our perspective of him again. The subversion does not just apply to The Comedian. Superhero characters get unmasked, they are depicted having sex, and even the ending takes an unexpected route. If you are getting tired of formulaic superhero films, Watchmen is the film for you.
Added to this is some impressive and creative cinematography. The first shot of Adrian is depicted through the small screen on a camera. The dolly zooms into the smiley face badge are memorable and suggest its symbolic significance. A giant Dr. Manhattan appears in an Apocalypse Now style shot of the Vietnam landscape, with the orange sky and helicopters serving as a backdrop. Another shot is fixed as it depicts Rorschach approaching a criminal, but we only see suggestive glimpses as the door between them and the camera keeps swinging open and closed. This may be a film adaptation of a graphic novel, but that does not mean it has to be any less creative in its telling of the story.
The new television series may be dividing fans, but at least fans have this visceral adaptation of the original work to admire. The cinematography is fun and imaginative. The superhero genre is subverted throughout. Even if you do not like the whole film, the opening, and even the credits, will arrest your attention. Who watches the Watchmen? The answer is you should.