Apr 10, 2016

A Theory on Why Zack Snyder Keeps Remaking "Watchmen"

Scene from Batman v. Superman
If you have so much as logged onto a computer in the last two weeks, you'll know how much everyone hates director Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman. It's gotten so bad that it's effected box office and even has people stupidly suggesting that Marvel is buying critics off. For whatever it's worth, the movie is not the worst that's happened to Batman (that remains Batman & Robin) and is a vast improvement over Snyder's previous take on Superman (Man of Steel). While many are quick to take him down for shoving every D.C. story ever into the film, one must consider something possibly even more obvious. Snyder isn't trying to make all of the superhero stories. He's just trying to remake a specific one.
The answer may be shocking since the story in question has little actually to do with Batman or Superman. Yes, there's a lot of obvious stories that are referenced: "The Death of Superman" and "The Dark Knight Returns" come immediately to mind. In fact, loyal comic fans will provide a laundry list of titles that were crammed into the 2.5 hour running time of Batman v. Superman. However, there's a certain familiarity that comes in Snyder's last two D.C. films that owes some of its credit to a previous title. In a sense, it was the dark satirical version that helps Batman v. Superman have a logical point. I'm talking about 2009's Watchmen.
The answer may initially be confusing, especially since there's little that Nite Owl II or Silk Spectre has to do with Gotham and Metropolis. They are mere humans in comparison to Superman's strength and agility. However, it is in this moment where Snyder went from a visual auteur into the thankless role of comic book adapter. While reviews were split (shocking note: Roger Ebert gave the film a perfect 4/4 rating) and Alan Moore removed his name from the project, the film embodied a certain complicated situation for Snyder. How do you tell an iconic comic book story in which so much happens that there's even additional written stories within the text? The answer is a three hour film that took a few controversial turns and changed enough to turn an entire demographic on him.
Of course, Watchmen wasn't his first foray into comic book movies. 300 was his breakout film, and one whose frame-by-frame take on Frank Miller's story was highly praised upon its release. It was heightened in every sense from the violence to the pectorals of its male cast. It was popular enough to inspire spoofs for the next few years, even garnering a non-Snyder directed sequel with Eva Green. It makes sense then that Watchmen could be done by this cocky new kid, thanks largely to his accuracy to do the impossible and turn a frame of a comic into a mirrored moving picture. Of course, Watchmen required more than 300, but there's a certain value in comparing the two solely for how it reflects Snyder's handling of every film he's done since 2009.
300 was full of life and reflected a director with passion. Watchmen was a thankless task that required him to be faithful while doing impossible things. It was so expansive that there were additional cuts of the film that added animation and stories that enhanced the experience while making it the longest comic book movie ever. It is likely that Watchmen's looming presence in pop culture makes it overbearing even if it was done right. However, the film's choice to occasionally become campy and lack self-awareness turned many off. Still, it had the Snyder traits, which included the colorful visuals and a great use of ramping in the opening scene where a man murders The Comedian. Even the opening credits were so popular that the studio released them online by the week after release.
Here's the thing: Where do you go from adapting one of the greatest comic book stories of all time? While Watchmen could be seen as flexing his visual style, it should be more commendable to notice that he was attempting to mix drama and nihilism into the work. The scene in which Rorschach beats up people in an alley is full of uncomfortable violence, both visually and audibly. Suddenly it felt like comic books were no longer solely about the style. He had to try substance. And frankly, that is where things likely began to fall apart for him. Where do you go from Watchmen? If you consider the effort put into it, you learn to adapt your own style to fit stories like this.
While The Legend of the Guardian: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a misnomer in this case, the cues for Watchmen homages came immediately in his only original film to date: Sucker Punch. It mixed dark violence with fetishistic sexuality and video games to make one of his most problematic films. Most of all, it was trying to turn the idea of brothels and sex slaves into a stylized comic fantasy. It's also one of the few films since to incorporate a soundtrack of unoriginal covers. It also has his traditional ramping and a self-importance that suggests that Snyder's biggest flaw is his inability to have fun with his work. What he cares most about is the same thing that Adrian Veidt did in Watchmen. He was apathetic towards destruction in order to better mankind. 
It is possibly why things only became more problematic when he was assigned to do Man of Steel. Whereas most people associate Superman as hope for justice and the American way, Snyder turned him into a nihilistic figure where he does little good. He refuses to save his father from a tornado. He does massive destruction to Metropolis. He kills Zod with a quick neck snap. Detractors will suggest that this is meant to show Superman, or Clark Kent, learning a lesson about humanity. While it is true, it is still a nihilistic concept that received the wrong cues from producer Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Trilogy, and also embodies the wrong ideas from Watchmen both visually and narratively.
While it isn't immediately obvious, the cues between Man of Steel and Watchmen become a tad obvious once you think about it. Both films end with a floating robot bomb. Superman is conflicted about the necessity of humanity, much like Dr. Manhattan. They're subtle references, but they build once you add Batman v. Superman into the mix and notice that the film's take on Lex Luthor is impeccably a campy millennial version of Veidt, and that Batman is in many ways tired and worn down, growing violent with every move - much like Rorschach. In fact, the nihilism is arguably more heightened here and in some cases has been called far more disturbing than entertaining. 
And yes, there's references to brothels and violence quick in the film - much like the first post-opening credits scene of Watchmen in which Rorschach wanders the street in a Taxi Driver-esque assessment of the city's seediness. Even the fact that the government and police forces are useless feel like a carry over. At no point in Batman v. Superman does it feel like the police are relevant, much like in Watchmen. In fact, both suggest that the viewer abandon all hope in having traditional heroes, or ones that actually care. Even the choice for Superman to sacrifice himself against Doomsday stinks of Watchmen's ending. Of course, there's one thing that feels like it existed more as an apology to fans who feel ripped off by Watchmen's lack of mutant squid attacks (as there are in the comics): Doomsday. He literally levels the entire city as he does in "Watchmen." 
One could go further and even suggest that the innocuous use of flashbacks are borrowed from the middle of Watchmen when a funeral is interrupted by flashbacks of Dr. Manhattan before he became a mutant. It remains one of the bigger complaints of Batman v. Superman, and likely upset people unfamiliar with Watchmen when the funeral was interrupted by origin stories. Of course, it doesn't help that there's funeral imagery that bookends Batman v. Superman that mirrors The Comedian's funeral sequence. Finally, there's the lingering sense of dread that comes with death. While present, it's overshadowed by a violent mindset and the need to sacrifice for the greater good. It's basically a downer of an ending.
Yet, what is possibly the biggest sign that Snyder keeps remaking Watchmen is how the films are handled. Watchmen was basically a film with three different versions to enhance the story. Batman v. Superman is being touted as suffering from the same problems. There's a promised R-Rated cut, and there's been plenty of talk of scenes that were too dark to keep in. Yes, it all stinks of Snyder trying to pull a collectible gimmick by suggesting that if the shorter cut (already at 2.5 hours) doesn't make sense, then come back for the longer one. Whether or not this is true has yet to be seen. However, it's a tactic that he started with Watchmen, and may only continue to grow as he handles the Justice League movies and whatever D.C. universe movies he gets to be in charge of.
Is it a problem that he keeps remaking Watchmen? It depends on your view of that movie. However, there's still something that feels diminishing about his films since. If you look at 300, you'll see a young and ambitious director who can do anything. Watchmen was that anything, and it didn't always work. However, it also seemed to take a lot out of him creatively. The ramping shots were now resorted to enhance gruesome violence, even on a PG-13 scale. His films now shared a desolate view of mankind. Even the characters felt like they were caricatures of Alan Moore's gang of characters. With careful assessment, one can see Batman v. Superman as yet another version of Watchmen in a long line of remakes. If nothing else, it's his most faithful to the model, though it's also most indicative of how exhausted he is with style. His films aren't as fun as they were during 300. They're now mostly obsessed with giving up. Maybe that's Snyder's problem. He needs to stop making movies in which everyone loses.

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