How Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' Paved the Way to 'Batman v Superman'
by Dan Marcus
March 12, 2016
On March 6th in 2009, Zack Snyder's Watchmen opened in theaters. The movie ended up being a modest success – earning nearly $200 million worldwide on a $130 million budget, with 65% on Rotten Tomatoes – but it would later develop more of a cult following on home video, with a "Director's Cut" and eventually an "Ultimate Cut" with a run-time of 215 minutes. Watchmen was released a year after Marvel Studios' Iron Man and several years before The Avengers and the big boom of superhero movies as we know it. As the film celebrates the 7th anniversary of its release, let's take a look back at how Watchmen paved the way for Snyder's upcoming Batman v Superman movie, and perhaps the entire DC Extended Universe itself.
The road to Snyder's Watchmen was a long and arduous one, as the adaptation of Alan Moore's famed graphic novel endured a long and healthy life in development hell. Several famous directors would try to tackle the notoriously dense subject material – such as Terry Gilliam in the 90's and Paul Greengrass in the early 00's – but it wouldn't be until Warner Bros. hired Zack Snyder (fresh off of the success of 300) that the film finally took shape. Snyder's Watchmen was admittedly a very faithful and loving adaptation of Moore's comic, complete with visuals, specific moments and costumes that were taken almost verbatim from the comic itself. Watchmen cemented Snyder's place in the comic book film pantheon as a filmmaker that would literally translate comic book panels as if they took a heroic leap from the pages themselves.
One of the more interesting aspects of Snyder's Watchmen is not how it was adapted, but when it was adapted. Watchmen finally revved up around 2007/2008 – the same time that WB would release The Dark Knight and Marvel would unleash Iron Man onto the world, thus beginning Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a matter of fact, I remember watching the teaser trailer for Watchmen as I was waiting for the IMAX presentation of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight to start in the summer of 2008. I'll never forget the audience bursting into applause when the trailer ended. I never would have thought at the time as I was watching one cinematic incarnation of Batman that I would be watching something from the person that would next bring us the next incarnation of the Caped Crusader. The decision to attach the first ever trailer for Watchmen with another big comic book movie was a wise move, as most of the people in that audience were undoubtedly hardcore comic book fans that were probably excited at the notion of finally seeing Alan Moore's dystopian comic book epic on the big screen.
However, while comic book fans themselves might've been ready for the film, I'm not sure if most regular audiences were. Watchmen – for anyone that hasn't read the graphic novel – is a relentlessly dark, dense and mature take on superheroes. If anything, it's Moore's brutal critique on the whole superhero genre. It's not necessarily meant to be blockbuster entertainment even in the vein of Nolan's Dark Knight. Alan Moore himself often protested the adaptation of his graphic novel, in the same way he denounced V for Vendetta. He explained Watchmen wasn't meant to be adapted and that translating the material for a different medium would be "missing the point" of the source material. Regardless of the validity of that claim, audiences probably weren't prepared for Snyder's R-rated, violent and graphic take on Watchmen back in 2009 – a time when superhero movies in our modern age were just blossoming.
However, flash-forward to 2016 and the superhero genre is in a different place. In 2009, we had two major comic book movies coming out. In 2016, we have five. Besides the increase in volume, we've also seen an increased maturity in comic book movies. Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and the Russo Brothers' Captain America: The Winter Soldier have helped transcend the genre, proving that comic book movies can be more than just big explosions, fisticuffs and people running around in spandex tights trying to save the world. As well as an increased sense of maturity comes an appropriate change in expectations. We no longer want our comic book movies to be a rehash of what we've seen before. We've grown perhaps a bit weary, or at the very least come to expect more nowadays.
For example, most audiences were worn out by the Spider-Man franchise when The Amazing Spider-Man swung into theaters in the summer of 2012. We had already seen Spider-Man's origin just a couple years before and the film didn't really bring anything new to the table. When Marvel Studios and Sony joined together last year and announced yet another reboot of the wall-crawler, most fans bemoaned the idea of yet another Spidey reboot. Kevin Fiege, Marvel Studios executive, had to convince fans that they weren't going to rehash the origin story yet again, promising a fresh take on the superhero. That fresh take is driven home even further with the recent casting of Zendaya as the female lead in the new reboot, causing fans to speculate she will be playing Michelle Gonzales – not Spidey favorites Mary Jane Watson or Gwen Stacy.
If Snyder's Watchmen would have been released today, in the wake of the groundbreaking success of the R-rated Deadpool, it might've been received differently. Back in 2009, most audiences weren't really prepared for Moore and Snyder's dark and mature take on superheroes. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to see Snyder continue that dark, almost twisted vision with the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. Most recently, there have been reports that Snyder is preparing an Extended Cut of Batman v Superman that will be R-rated. While many will claim the Extended Cut is a result of the success of Deadpool, I would point my finger toward the person who has been treating superheroes this way for a long time: Zack Snyder.
There have also been rumors and speculation claiming WB is worried that Batman v Superman will be "too dark" and/or "too smart" for general audiences – and I don't buy that for a second. However, I do buy that Snyder's movie will likely be very dark and will likely have a level of introspection and intelligence that we might not commonly see in most comic book movies these days. Entertainment Weekly writer Anthony Breznican, who has seen the film, calls it “an intricate tale of hidden agendas, psychological turmoil, and even some complex theological questions- plus a lot of smashing.” That sounds exactly like the kind of comic book movie Zack Snyder would make – because he essentially already did that with Watchmen.
So, when Batman v Superman does hit theaters in just a few more weeks, let's not forget the measured, sophisticated and layered comic book movie that came before – before the days of Marvel and before the recent success of Deadpool helped illustrate how a faithful interpretation of a beloved character can yield amazing results. Watchmen might not have set the world ablaze at the time, but I think it's a very intriguing film to watch in the prism of superhero movies now.
Without Snyder's faithful interpretation, we might not have had his interesting take on the Man of Steel or even his take on a certain Dark Knight. It's not a perfect film by any means – I still think the Director's Cut and the Ultimate Cut are the only true ways to experience the film – but it touches on certain deeper, philosophical themes that Alan Moore first explored in his graphic novel back when it was first published. I fully expect Zack Snyder to explore those themes in Batman v Superman when the film opens on March 25th, but it wouldn't hurt to remember the other comic book adaptation that helped take superheroes to a whole new level more than half a decade before. What are your thoughts? Do you agree that Zack Snyder's Watchmen paved the way for the DC Extended Universe? Sound Off below!