Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder’s only good film

Released after the massive success of 300, 2009’s Watchmen is director Zack Snyder’s take on Alan Moore’s cult classic comic book miniseries. The comic deals with superheroes in a serious, realistic, and often spiritual manner, yet the film benefits most from the series’ intense and striking visuals. The movie stars a cast with more indie cred than you’ll typically find in superhero films, and its eclectic pop soundtrack lends to the film’s gritty feel.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

The Plot

The film begins with a montage of the Watchmen’s history set to a Bob Dylan song. A Justice Society-like super-team that began as the Minutemen in 1939 soon lays the foundation for the Watchmen: a group of masked heroes used to advance the interests of the United States in domestic and international conflicts.

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While the majority of the group are normal humans, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has advanced psychic and telekinetic powers that allow him to greatly influence world events. He helps the US win in Vietnam, leading to Nixon’s reelection, and his existence gives the US an enormous strategic advantage over the Soviet Union that inadvertently leads to the escalation of nuclear tensions between the superpowers.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

At the end of the opening credits, it’s 1985, and in this alternate history, Nixon has been elected for a third term and the world is now in violent disarray. Protestors take to the streets, and the Watchmen and superheroes are no longer revered. The government has passed legislation banning all masked crime-fighting activity as well.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a rogue Watchman, investigates the murder of a government agent before finding out that he was the Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan), a retired Watchman. Rorschach believes that someone is out to kill all the Watchmen, and he attempts to find his former teammates and warn them before it’s too late. He quickly contacts Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), who’s revealed his secret identity as Adrian Veidt and become a successful billionaire.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

Dr. Manhattan is soon led to believe his powers have caused several people in his life to get cancer, and he exiles himself to Mars. His disappearance causes political turmoil and the Soviet Union takes advantage of his absence to invade Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Veidt is almost assassinated, while Rorschach is framed for the murder of one of his former arch-enemies. This prompts Nite Owl and Silk Spectre to come out of retirement and break Rorschach out of prison.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

As they investigate who’s behind the conspiracy, they start to believe that Veidt is behind it all. Eventually, he reveals his plan to destroy several major cities, pinning it all on Dr. Manhattan, thus uniting the US and Soviet Union together against a common enemy and bringing about peace.

The Good

Watchmen delivers as a visual and aural extravaganza, although it does falter with the more interesting aspects from its source material. Even with its three-hour running time, it’s difficult to get all of the nuances of the original miniseries on screen. Snyder compensates by upping the visual flow to make it nearly poetic at times. The colors pop, the hits are brutal, and the kinetic energy of the film rarely lets up.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

I generally dislike Snyder’s films, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but I find Watchmen to be the sole good film on his résumé. 300 didn’t haven’t enough variety to make it worth a second watch, and Sucker Punch is abysmal. However, he manages to find somewhat of a balance between visuals and storytelling in Watchmen that he never achieves in his other films. 

Fans of the comic may enjoy watching the pages come to life on screen, but I think the film’s biggest fans will be those who never read the series. It’s difficult for a short film to pack all of the emotional punch of a sprawling series, and Watchmen is no exception. However, viewers unfamiliar with the comic will find a film that’s high on visuals along with subversive thoughts.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

Since film is a medium of its own, it’s difficult to compare a film to its source material. In the case of Watchmen, however, that task is almost impossible. The film often plays like a highlight reel or SparkNotes of something vastly more interesting, and what we’re left with are mere glimpses of big ideas. Ulterior motives for historical events are sprinkled throughout the film and so are hints at warped timelines. However, they never amount to much more than flashes of something more. Some things needed to be expanded upon, but it seems the film hit limits, both in terms of its running time and possibly in the skills of the filmmakers themselves.

While I’m often critical of Snyder’s style, he’s quite ballsy with this film. Watchmen won’t be enjoyable for the younger crowd that flocks to the Marvel films, and it really won’t be enjoyable for most casual filmgoers. It’s not a complicated film, but it has a grim style that will likely turn off most viewers. The visuals are striking, but often grimy and dirty and extremely bloody and gory.

The Bad

The major drawback of Watchmen is that it’s essentially a frame by frame reproduction of the original miniseries. Many of the scenes are nearly identical to their comic book counterpart, and this makes the film feel like a bit of a museum piece as a result. The story feels confined and frozen by slavish adherence to the source material. It never really amounts to a great cinematic experience, which it easily could have been, and it never replicates the spirit of the comic book because, well, it’s not a comic book.

Watchmen (2009) is Zack Snyder's only good film

The miniseries had time to breathe and explore multiple storylines, and the film doesn’t handle these omissions with grace. You can feel the editors working hard to trim it all down. The film wants to show everything it can, but it has no confidence in itself to be an adaptation, or make necessary changes in translating the source. It simply exists as a film version of some scenes from the miniseries, and in the end, that’s the biggest shame. 

There’s a lot here that works, from the visuals to the alternate history elements. It’s an entertaining film, but it feels like it could have been so much more. Unfortunately, it’s not, but in the end, it’s worth a watch and will likely provide thrills for those bored with typical Hollywood superhero fare.

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  • jbwarner86

    As someone who got really into the comic in anticipation of seeing the movie in theaters, I can say that this movie was pretty much doomed from the start to not satisfy Watchmen fans. Checking out fansites and stuff, I learned that there had been several pitches in Hollywood over the years for a Watchmen film, including a few full scripts, all of which were looser adaptations that strayed pretty far from Alan Moore’s dark and cerebral writing style, and these were pretty infamous among fans for being roundly abominable. No one in the Watchmen fandom would’ve been satisfied with anything less than a word-for-word, shot-for-shot recreation of the comic. And that’s what the movie tried to be, but obviously that’s not exactly a recipe for a successful film, especially for a story like this that’s decidedly non-cinematic, so people still had a ton of issues with it anyway. It was a lose-lose.

    I still think it’s an okay film, but I prefer the book overall. Even the three-hour director’s cut that restored all the deleted scenes still felt truncated and less subtle than what Moore and Gibbons could do.

    • NameWithheldByRequest

      I agree. I don’t understand the fans who want to see the entirety of the source material on the big screen, as if that’s even possible to do in a movie. Maybe they want to read along with the comic book. It’s silly.

  • RockyDmoney

    I’m sorry but did you not see Dawn of the Dead? that was a great movie. I feel like Snyder did as well as job as anyone could expect on Watchmen. The source material is just so dense with multiple themes going on. Perhaps it would have been better done as a trilogy?

    • writebrain

      There’s some weird thing going on with the internet about Snyder; they hate him for things that lesser directors are allowed to get away with for some reason. I believe it might be the speed ramping from 300; other action directors started imitating the technique, and Snyder got blamed for it. To say that Watchmen is his only good film is ludicrous. People nitpick elements in his films that are present in other films they heap praise on. Snyder’s films seem to get under the skin of his audience, and I think it’s because he has real talent.

      • RockyDmoney

        I think its more his personality. He does come off as a bit of a douchebag

    • NameWithheldByRequest

      I think a lot of people forget that Snyder directed Dawn of the Dead. I saw it in the theaters when it came out, but it’s so different, especially stylistically, from his later films, that I didn’t associate it with Snyder until I saw again a couple years ago and saw his name credited as director. But, yeah, Dawn of the Dead is pretty awesome. And I agree that Snyder isn’t given the credit he deserves making Watchmen. I don’t know what more any director could have done to be as faithful to the original source material as possible and still make a decent movie.

      • Forrest

        My experience is the inverse of yours. His only film I have seen is Dawn Of The Dead (2004). I enjoy it best when I don’t remember it’s a remake of the inimitable original Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

  • Pud

    I would agree with you if I bought into the thess that Watchmen is a good film.

    • Pud

      Thesis, sorry.

  • Toby Clark

    I’d argue that Man of Steel, 300 and Legend of the Guardians are at least good, if not great.

    Watchmen, though, is almost one of my top hundred films of all time.

  • Michael Micucci

    >it’s 1985, and in this alternate history, Nixon has been elected for a third term and the world is now in violent disarray.

    I might have missed something that was explained in the film, but, Nixon was originally elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972. A third term would have started in 1976, a fourth in 1980, and a fifth in 1984. Is this a typo, or was it explained in the film that suddenly presidential terms were expanded to 8 years?

    • jbwarner86

      With Woodward and Bernstein murdered in this timeline before they could expose the Watergate scandal, Nixon was pretty much allowed to run unchecked. Riding on the goodwill he gained from the public for winning the Vietnam War (thanks to Doctor Manhattan disintegrating the Viet Cong), he got the 22nd Amendment repealed and stayed in office for five consecutive terms. It was all explained in the book, but I think the movie just let us infer it.

  • NameWithheldByRequest

    Watchmen is a great example of the dilemma filmmakers face when adapting complex source material to a two or three hour movie. You have to cut the story down to the bare essentials, but you risk alienating the purists who are pissed if anything is left out. The problem is that movies and literature are very different media, something which, I think, Alan Moore doesn’t seem to understand. Watchmen was as good an adaptation as anyone could reasonably expect. Is it relatively superficial compared to the source material? Sure. But if you want depth, read the graphic novel. The movie should be judged as a movie. And on that score, it’s pretty damn good…

  • Wizkamridr

    Man of Steel is the only Snyder film I like. I think it’s much better than Superman II. However, MOS can’t hold a candle to the 1st superman film with Reeve.

  • truth but his dawn of the dead was his second best
    followed by 300 and man of steel