You need to watch Zack Snyder’s most underrated superhero movie before it leaves Hulu this week
Snyder grappled with the unfilmable and kind of succeeded.
In 1963, Bob Dylan was thinking big. He wanted to write an anthem, something that could capture the spirit of Scottish and Irish balladeers who would gather large crowds to spread a message. “Come gather 'round people / wherever you roam,” he began, “and admit that the waters / around you have grown.” The lyrics to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” are rhythmic and steady, building on top of each other until each verse reaches its inescapable conclusion.
Dylan struck a deep chord, even as the times continued to change. As literary critic Christopher Ricks wrote in Dylan’s Version of Sin, lyrics like “your sons and your daughters / Are beyond your command” could themselves change. Once cautioning square parents not to hate their hippie children, the words could be seen decades later as a warning to grown hippies that their children would rebel against them. The song never changed, but the passage of time allowed its meaning to shift and grow.
Eventually, that growth would come to encompass superheroes in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a 2009 adaptation of the legendary graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Snyder jumps onto Dylan’s vast-yet-specific song, one that encompasses generational change and fear, and tasks it to accompany a quick overview of the movie’s world.
Starting in 1940, the audience moves through historic events like Hiroshima and the JFK assassination with assists from masked crusaders. Dylan’s lyrics become pointed as “the curse / it is cast” plays over The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) slipping away from the grassy knoll.
This sequence, which writer David Hayter said was met with extreme studio resistance, is one of the best in the movie. The audience comes to understand the supernatural powers of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the sex appeal and pregnancy of Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino), the isolated pain of young Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the cutting-edge cool of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the societal veneration of Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and how a group of off-duty crime-fighting cops in the 1940s, the Minutemen, graduated to a second generation, the Crimebusters, by the 1960s.
The world-building in the original Watchmen, building out a 1985 America where Richard Nixon is still president and Vietnam is the 51st state, is rich. One could get lost in Moore and Gibbons’ details, so Snyder sticks to the bones of the story, picking up its biggest plot points and weaving them in and out of character vignettes.
Some of the recreated comic scenes work well, like the opening murder of the Comedian in his apartment, and Dr. Manhattan putting himself together again from the skeletal system on up. Others, like Rorschach's diary acting as a monologue, come off like a retread of Sin City.
The road to Watchmen was a long one, hampered both by Moore’s lack of interest in an adaptation and the material itself, which Terry Gilliam, no stranger to complex material, deemed unfilmable. Directors like Paul Greengrass and Tim Burton came and went before Snyder’s work with 300 landed him the gig.
300 and Watchmen are wildly different source material, and Moore and Snyder are wildly different creators. The graphic novel was penned in the last few years of the Cold War, with little expectation that it would end so soon. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear annihilation felt alien in 2009, although the events of 2022 arguably make Watchmen’s political analysis feel downright timely again.
It wasn’t that Moore was specifically against the idea of Snyder’s adaptation, but any transformation of the work. “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can't,” he told Entertainment Weekly. Perhaps an easier option would have been to create a sequel story suited for a new medium, like the 2019 Watchmen TV series.
But Snyder has never been one for the easy road. Watchmen doesn’t capture the details and idiosyncrasies of its original work, because how could it? But it does know the story it wants to tell, and it wants to tell it with the greatest respect possible. If Snyder couldn’t get the whole orchestra, he could at least play the hits.
Watchmen is streaming on Hulu until May 31.