The world of superhero movies was in a different place during the summer of 2008. Back then, Christian Bale was still Batman, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still considered a relatively risky gamble as it launched Phase One, and Zack Snyder hadn’t released a superhero movie. Not yet. As a director synonymous today with foreboding capes and cowls, and the breed of zealotry such an on-screen interpretation can elicit from fans, Snyder was still a Warners wunderkind in ’08: the guy who directed the surprise 2006 blockbuster 300 and was about to debut his most ambitious film to date, Watchmen.
An adaptation of a graphic novel that its mastermind and co-creator, Alan Moore, essentially called unfilmable, Watchmen arrived perhaps a decade too early, offering a vast and pensive deconstruction of the comic book conventions surrounding superhero stories—conventions which were only just beginning to sink their hooks into the broader pop culture landscape thanks to Marvel and, soon enough, Snyder’s own masked epics based on DC Comics characters. However, even during the San Diego Comic-Con rollout of Watchmen, Snyder already had Batman on the brain. In a telling interview with Entertainment Weekly, Snyder commented on the then nearly orgasmic reception enjoyed by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a cultural phenomenon that would become the first superhero movie to gross $1 billion and win an Oscar for acting. The picture and its predecessor Batman Begins were celebrated in the media and fan circles alike for being a “realistic” and “dark” take on the Batman mythology.
“Everyone says that about Batman Begins,” Snyder told EW at the time. “‘Batman’s dark.’ I’m like, okay, ‘No, Batman’s cool.’ He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go.”
The incendiary comment was likely intended to provoke a reaction in the press. However, those words also spoke to the extreme and baroque terms by which Snyder interpreted Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen graphic novel. He saw it as a violent and excessively grim story where superheroes committed and endured the most horrific acts. The darker the better, as the ostensibly adult superhero epic could then puncture the fantasy elements of these characters which persisted in even Nolan’s brooding and more grounded interpretation of Batman. Who knows, if Snyder hadn’t felt the need to be so slavishly faithful to the graphic novel, he might’ve included that scene of a male hero getting sodomized?
Whether that was the most interesting takeaway to gather from Moore and Gibbons’ story, it certainly made for a striking movie when Watchmen was released in 2009, and paved the way for Snyder eventually being handed the keys to Warners’ DC kingdom after Nolan retired from Batman movies a few years later. First Snyder directed Man of Steel, a Superman reboot produced and partially made in Nolan’s own image, and then Snyder helmed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, his most uncompromised vision for these characters—the fallout of which led to the controversial Justice League. Or more aptly, Zack Snyder’s Justice League as it was eventually called when released in its most pure, four-hour form on HBO Max last year.
With his DC films, Snyder, in theory, moved away from Moore and Gibbons’ thinly veiled variations on those iconic DC characters. In Watchmen, “the Superman,” in the original Nietzsche meaning of the term, is outright said to exist in the form of Doctor Manhattan, a remote and desensitized man who’s lost touch with his humanity after being given the powers of God. And instead of Batman, the character’s various interpretations are divided between sad loners like an oddball nerd who calls himself Nite Owl II as an excuse to play dress up, and a homicidal maniac prone to conspiracy theories and naked racism: Rorschach.
But by the time Snyder got to play with the actual characters of Batman and Superman in their own proper DC settings, and put them alongside the likes of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, he was expected to make something more broadly appealing and commercial than the dreary and, in his hands, frankly gruesome world of Watchmen. A heroic and mythic vision where they formed a veritable Knights of the Round Table to fight off alien invasions and ancient monsters from the deep. And yet, truth be told, Zack Snyder’s Justice League never moved too far afield from his Watchmen. Which might speak to why his vision for the DC Universe has always been a contentious one.
Gods Among Men
One of the various appeals that came with the 1986 publication of Watchmen is it took a skeptical and thoroughly adult look at the ultimately childish concept of superheroes: What would it really be like to have a world of colorful costumed men and women convinced that their might makes right? Hence the title, which is taken from Roman poet Juvenal’s Satires. That second century writer mused “who watches the watchmen?” while considering the trustworthiness of the guards Roman men leave their wives with while going away to war.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, such a cynical gaze at the superhero concept was revolutionary. It broke down and examined these uniquely 20th century, and uniquely American, fantasies and put them in a “realistic” context. And for many, the idea of realism quickly became interchangeable with “dark” since Moore’s innate pessimism about human nature drained into all the copycats who took inspiration from the Watchmen graphic novel, even if applying its bleakness to traditional superhero stories featuring popular characters—be they Batman and Superman or Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four across the street—often led to a tonal dissonance since these stories were typically not intended to indict the very existence of their characters.
In that sense, Snyder’s early dismissal of Nolan’s The Dark Knight movies in 2008 as not being truly dark is interesting. In Nolan’s Batman movies, good people die and supervillains like the Joker and Ra’s Al Ghul are remade to look like post-9/11 terrorists and lone mass murderers. Even Nolan’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises appears fairly prescient with his paramilitary, storm the institutions and halls of power, aesthetic. Yet those movies never painted Batman with the same bleak brush that they did their villains, or Moore and Gibbons did all superhero tropes in Watchmen. Bale’s Batman was the exception, the lone and noble knight who, like a comic book hero, would make the right choice, even in a more horrifying and trying context.
The Batman Snyder and Ben Affleck created in Batman v Superman is not that. In truth, he fights more fantastical, comic book-like threats, be they the perceived menace of Superman or the actual ones of alien monsters named Doomsday and Darkseid. And yet, the character of Bruce Wayne himself is bitterer and broken, especially in BvS where Batman, like everyone, shudders at the simple idea of innate goodness being even possible in a red cape.
In Man of Steel, the first of Snyder’s DC Extended Universe films, the arrival of Superman is treated with the kind of geopolitical verisimilitude that Nolan’s Batman received in his movies . But in Batman v Superman, Snyder was more unencumbered and able to do what he wanted with the characters. And that meant bringing them closer to the existential dread and cynicism with which they were treated in Watchmen.
Thus why Snyder told The Wall Street Journal in 2016 that he saw BvS as “a little bit” of a continuation of Watchmen.
“It’s all about the ‘why’ of superheroes,” Snyder said. “The political why, the religious why, the philosophical why…. Once you’ve absorbed that [Watchmen] material, there’s no way it doesn’t resonate with you, especially when you’re dealing with characters like Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman. In some ways I hope it’s really the best, impossible version of Watchmen.”
Indeed, consider how the very first scene in Snyder’s Watchmen movie is a cartoonish recreation of a 1980s talk show where Republican commentator Pat Buchanan is discussing the nuclear deterrence provided by a superhero like Doctor Manhattan, as opposed to the real mid-‘80s Buchanan who cheered on President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. In Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons tried to imagine what the world would look like if a superhero like Superman existed, and it wasn’t necessarily rosy since Doctor Manhattan single handedly won the Vietnam War and provided a political backdrop wherein Richard Nixon was able to stay in power for years as a war hero with God on his side.
In Batman v Superman, Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio attempt to mimic this approach by having actual modern news commentators like Charlie Rose and even Neil DeGrasse Tyson debate the political, scientific, and moral implications of Superman existing. And while Henry Cavill’s Kal-El is generally more heroic and grounded than Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan, every heroic action the character does is misconstrued and manipulated by political, corporate, and social structures beyond his control.
In the same montage where Superman saves astronauts from a malfunctioning rocket and survivors of a flood, a U.S. Senator is arguing on PBS that the Man of Steel is a threat to democracy if he acts unilaterally. The same senator also holds hearings throughout the movie, turning public sentiment against Superman. For example, in another scene Superman saves Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from an African warlord in an unnamed nation. The American government then blames Kal-El for being the cause of a war crime committed in the same country after the superhero executed the warlord, plunging the local village into chaos.
Batman v Superman is committed to raising the same grander international and philosophical questions posed by superheroes as Watchmen did, and is more or less committed to coming to the same dreary and downbeat conclusions. However, the dissonance that arises from this is because Watchmen is ultimately an indictment of the concept of superheroes whereas Batman v Superman still wants to put its heroes on a mythic pedestal… even if for most of the movie, Batman is indistinguishable from the film’s villain, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Both men are dedicated to murdering Superman at all costs because they perceive the alien as a threat to the world(s) they’re separately building.
A Fractured American Myth
In that same 2016 interview with WSJ, Snyder also said a striking thing about the Superman iconography he lusciously deployed across all three of his DCEU movies.
“The kid grew up in Kansas,” said Snyder, “raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, pretty solid salt of the earth people. Superman is the dream of a farmer from Kansas. Righting wrongs for a ghost. It’s sort of the Kansas morality, that black and white, unrealistic morality of fighting crime.” And ultimately, Snyder surmises, “[Superman’s] headed for the fall.”
The director is of course not the first person to recognize the American iconography of comics’ first superhero–Superman is synonymous with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”–but in interpreting that idealism as doomed, or at the very least naive, Snyder’s Superman lands closer to characters in Watchmen than the grandiloquent light all three of Snyder’s DCEU films simultaneously want to bathe the red cape in. There is of course Doctor Manhattan, but the futility with which Cavill’s Superman is viewed in all three of Snyder’s DC movies appears also in line with the sardonic (and decidedly British) gaze with which Moore views the entire superhero ideal. After all, Watchmen tracks the rise of superheroes in a fictional alternative universe with the rise of America’s actual superpower status in the 20th century, tying even the name “Doctor Manhattan” to the creation of the first nuclear bombs during World War II.
And as the decades passed within the story, other superhero characters with a greater sense of patriotism and national identity than Doctor Manhattan become increasingly disillusioned with the state of global affairs. At one point, the often oblivious Nite Owl even asks another superhero named the Comedian–the closest thing Watchmen has to a Captain America character–what happened to the American dream? “It came true,” sneers the Comedian after he ghoulishly thrills at shooting urban protestors in the 1970s.
Snyder understood these elements of Watchmen and in his adaptation’s best sequence he even invents an effective opening titles montage that sees superheroes subtly and significantly change world events from the 20th century as we know them, starting with Carla Gugino’s bombshell visage as the first Silk Spectre being painted on a WWII B-17 bomber and culminating with the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being the actual trigger man who killed JFK. All of these vignettes are scored to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” just as the superheroes increasingly change world history until Nixon is elected to a third term as a war hero.
Watchmen views superheroes as a dangerous fantasy created by an American culture addicted to the romance of rugged individualism and moral superiority achieved through military strength. It also speaks to a rotttenous that festers as the culture’s superpower status grows.
In its own way, Batman v Superman continues this tradition, with Cavill’s Superman seeming to accept his “American Dream” is a mirage, just as Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl II did in Watchmen. After Superman learns that Lex Luthor will kill his mother unless he goes and does battle with Batman, Superman glumly tells Lois Lane, “No one stays good in this world.”
The movie’s ambivalence toward Superman feels in keeping with Watchmen, but it is jarring within its own movie which concludes with Superman sacrificing himself to save the world (or perhaps just Lois) from Doomsday. He’s given two martyrs’ funerals in both Metropolis and Smallville, Kansas, complete with sweeping shots of American wheatfields and horse drawn carriages as bagpipes play “Amazing Grace.” There’s even a somber shot of an American flag being folded by U.S. Marines at one of the ceremonies. As a piece of filmmaking, it’s exquisitely wrought. But the sequence also feels discordant with the movie we just watched–a movie which views Superman as something of a fool, or at least a damned idealist who even in his foreshadowed resurrection is hinted to fail again with visions of an Evil Kal-El haunting Bruce Wayne’s dreams.
Violent Superhero Delights Have Violent Ends
But perhaps the greatest through-line between Snyder’s Watchmen and his DCEU movies is the through-line in all of his movies: a palpable giddiness that comes with on-screen violence. Beginning with the filmmaker’s first (and I would argue still best) movie, 2004’s wild Dawn of the Dead remake, Snyder has basked in sequences of slow-motion violence punctuated by extreme close-ups of weaponry and the muscles using them. He even popularized the mid-2000s trend of speed-ramped fight sequences–which is to say alternating mid-shot between slow-motion and sped up photography–thanks to 300’s fetishistic imagery of burly, half-naked naked men spearing their enemies to death.
In other words, Snyder loves when action sequences look gloriously cool.
However, this turned out to be one of the weakest elements of his Watchmen adaptation. On the page, Dave Gibbons’ artwork never breaks its deceptively simple symmetric panel design, treating the rare fight scene with as much attention as the far more frequent dialogue heavy sequences. That’s because, in the end, all of the “heroes” in the book are broken people with a disturbing hobby. Dan and Laurie (Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II) get into fights to fill the emptiness they feel in their own lives and to satisfy a sexual kink; Rorschach probably has several personality disorders and is an unhinged murderer; and the Comedian is essentially a jackbooted thug.
When they fight, they aren’t meant to look cool. And yet, Snyder’s Watchmen movie lingers and expands on every fight scene in the graphic novel, and even adds a few. When Wilson’s on-screen Dan and Malin Akerman’s Laurie are beset by muggers in a New York alley, the film savors the imagery of Laurie breaking one thug’s arm so badly that we see bone; in another sequence invented for the film, Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup) obliterates with a wave of his hand a room full of gangsters only to see their blood and viscera clinging to the ceiling; when Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach tricks a gangster into cutting the arms off of his own subordinate during a prison riot, the movie wallows in a close-up of blood splatter which would’ve been fit perfectly in the then popular Saw franchise.
Snyder wanted his Watchmen characters to look cool, even when they were doing sad or disturbing things. That boyish thirst to relish every violent action carried over to Man of Steel when the film ended at Snyder’s insistence with Kal-El snapping the neck of General Zod (Michael Shannon), and only after the camera lingered on every falling skyscraper in their battle, just in case you missed this is supposed to remind you of 9/11. After that sequence came under intense criticism, BvS begins with Superman giving a little half-smirk in his first scene before killing an African warlord. Meanwhile his supposed counterpoint, Affleck’s Batman, is literally branding any criminal he deems undesirable with a hot iron, which inexplicably causes other convicts in the prison system to mark those men for death.
When we finally see Batman fight, it’s with maximum carnage as he drives the Batmobile through criminals’ bodies in one scene, and stabs them and breaks their necks with heavy crates in another. In Snyder’s original vision for Wonder Woman before Patty Jenkins came aboard, he photographed Gal Gadot’s Diana as carrying around the heads of her enemies like they were trophies.
Admittedly, this violence, as well as the aforementioned pessimism Batman v Superman treats both of its title characters with, is lightened in Snyder’s final DC superhero movie, as finally realized in the superior four-hour cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Affleck’s Bruce is better adjusted as he attempts to atone for his sins by forming the titular superhero team and, eventually, bringing Superman back from the dead. Meanwhile the resurrected Superman seems in a healthier and happier mental place (after initially trying to murder his future teammates when he first wakes up). He returns to Kansas and is genuinely grateful to be with Lois and Martha Kent (Diane Lane).
Yet it should be noted many of those scenes were written and conceived by Snyder and WB after the largely negative critical reaction to BvS in 2016. Snyder’s original vision was to do Justice League as a two or three-parter, with in one iteration there being a cliffhanger of Superman succumbing to Darkseid’s Anti-Life Equation. That means Superman is brainwashed into becoming the evil alien God-Emperor many feared Doctor Manhattan would become, especially in Snyder’s reworked ending of Watchmen where the whole world is tricked into believing their Superman destroyed New York City.
In the new scenes shot and added by Snyder solely for the HBO Max release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it would seem the violent delights of his darker earlier movies would still have violent ends if he were allowed to continue on past his first Justice League movie. In ZSJL’s final epilogue, which was shot in 2020, Affleck’s Batman has another vision of a future apocalyptic hellscape where Superman has become Darkseid’s evil minion, and banished Earth to a Mad Max like destiny where Darkseid killed Aquaman, Superman killed Wonder Woman, and even Batman and Jared Leto’s Joker are working together to stop evil Kal-El after Harley Quinn died in Bruce’s arms.
It’s bleak, grim, and like a lot of ‘90s comic books written in the wake of Watchmen, needlessly dark. It’s still unclear if in the future promised by ZSJL that Batman would be raped, as Snyder once mused could occur in Watchmen, but the fact it plays in the same ballpark might explain why the Snyderverse reached an early end on its fury road.