High on Fidelity: On Zack Snyder, Watchmen, and missing the point

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Mar 5, 2014

If you disliked Zack Snyder's 2009 adaptation of Watchmen, Zack would like you to know that it's better than that other adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic. You know, the one that never got made.

Even though the film's detractors, at this point, have largely moved on, Snyder came up, in an interview earlier this week that approaches Kanye West levels of audacity and insecurity, with a curious, yet creative defense against a black freighter that's already sailed.

Here's what happened: Producer Joel Silver, who originally developed Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel for film with Terry Gilliam as director, made a few comments that are less dismissive of Snyder's film than clickbaity headlines would lead you to believe (he actually says he liked Snyder's movie).

Silver mainly details the ending of his version's script, which featured Dr. Manhattan going back in time to erase himself from ever existing and relegating the film's "superhero" characters to existence solely in the pages of a comic book. But his offhand assertion that Snyder was "a slave to the material" struck a sore spot with the director, who yesterday shot back in The Huffington Post:

Zack Snyder: If you read the Gilliam ending, it's completely insane...Yeah, the fans would have stormed the castle on that one. So, honestly, I made Watchmen for myself. It's probably my favorite movie that I've made. And I love the graphic novel and I really love everything about the movie. I love the style. I just love the movie and it was a labor of love. And I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway and they would have made it crazy. So, finally I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.

So the director of Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole believes that he saved audiences from enduring a Watchmen from the director of 12 Monkeys. It's a revealing bit of egotism: Snyder casting himself as the text's righteous savior while pluralizing and diminishing Gilliam, one of the medium's most visionary artists, as just another kook with a s****y script (In 2009, Gilliam both complimented and mildly criticized Snyder's take, saying "he got the look right, and the Rorschach stuff is really, really great. I think I felt if there was any fault, it was almost too respectful of the original").

Snyder's argument against Gilliam is sophistry -- you can't fairly compare a finished movie to an unfilmed script -- but in his attempt to re-litigate Watchmen, he opens some doors that, for his sake, should probably remain closed.

Zack Snyder: It's just using elements that are in the comic book already, that's the only thing I did. I would not have grabbed something from out of the air and said, "Oh, here's a cool ending" just because it's cool… That's the problem with comic book movies and genre. And I believe that we've evolved -- I believe that the audiences have evolved. I feel like Watchmen came out at sort of the height of the snarky Internet fanboy -- like, when he had his biggest strength. And I think if that movie came out now -- and this is just my opinion -- because now that we've had Avengers and comic book culture is well established, I think people would realize that the movie is a satire. You know, the whole movie is a satire. It's a genre-busting movie.

There's a lot to unpack here, so get comfortable. One, Zack Snyder says his Watchmen is a satire. We, the moviegoing public, didn't understand that, because in 2009 we hadn't seen comic-book movies before. (Just three Spider-Man films, at least three X-Men movies, every Batman except the last one, the Blade trilogy, two Hulk movies, two Fantastic Four movies, Iron Man, The Incredibles, Hellboy 1 & 2 and every Superman movie besides the one Snyder made himself. Oh, and Mystery Men, an actual satire of superhero movies.)

But let's give Snyder the benefit of the doubt, because I'm pretty sure that "satire" is his shorthand way of saying "postmodern deconstruction of the superhero genre," because he goes on to demonstrate that he has a deeper insight into the book's true significance:

Snyder: The graphic novel was written to analyze the graphic novel -- and comic books and the Cold War and politics and the place that comic books play in the mythology of pop culture. I guess that's what I'm getting at with the end of Watchmen -- in the end, the most important thing with the end was that it tells the story of the graphic novel. The morality tale of the graphic novel is still told exactly as it was told in the graphic novel -- I used slightly different devices. The Gilliam version, if you look at it, it has nothing to do with the idea that is the end of the graphic novel. And that's the thing that I would go, "Well, then don't do it." It doesn't make any sense.

This is an extraordinarily frustrating quote. It's like the chimps in 2001 touched the monolith and bathed in its potential, but instead of creating tools and evolving, they set themselves on fire and leapt off a cliff. Snyder recognizes that Watchmen's legacy lies mainly in how it used the medium, but seems confused as to what that means. So let's clear that up.

The most important thing about Watchmen isn't about the ending of the story. It's about the intricacies in the telling of the story. Preserving the morality tale of the ending -- an ending Moore unintentionally cribbed from an episode of The Outer Limits -- isn't as important as Snyder thinks. This speaks to a larger problem with adaptations in general, but comic-book adaptations specifically: The idea that fidelity to the source material is most crucial. Snyder speaks of his love of the material -- not his understanding or interpretation of the material, but his love. He loves it. He's a fan just like you. He's going to do the right thing. So don't worry about trifles like story or metaphor or subtext, because Rorschach's mask is going to look awesome.

Orthodoxy is not, in and of itself, a virtue. This is something that both comic-book fans and Snyder don't seem to understand. Think about what happens when the Internet sees a picture of a superhero costume, and not just in Snyder's mythical, fanboy-dominant 2009. People lost their minds a decade earlier when shots showed up of Wolverine in black leather. They lost it at the mere mention of Heath Ledger as the Joker. They lost it again last year, when Snyder himself cast Ben Affleck as Batman. Choices like these shred the safety blankets of those who can embrace only the familiar, unmasking many fans as slaves to familiarity. But Wonder Woman has big boobs! But Johnny Storm is white! But you changed the ending! These are some fans' tiresome battle cries.

The alleged ending of the nonexistent Gilliam Watchmen seems to reflect Alan Moore's ideas about the mechanics and tropes of comics themselves. Dr. Manhattan erasing himself from reality, thereby restoring superheroes to the actual pages of comic books, would be off-puttingly whimsical if tacked on to the end of Snyder's film, but in the hands of a man who understands the fantastical, the guy who made Brazil (an actual satire), who can say? By leveling that criticism against Gilliam, Snyder himself becomes the whining fanboy.

Snyder seems to think that Watchmen's ideas are only relayed in the neo-noir plot, characters (simple stand-ins for the soon-to-be-integrated-into-DC continuity Charlton Comics crew used in Moore's original pitch), and Gibbons' admittedly awesome layouts. He's proud enough of this approach that he doubles down on his attachment to the look, if not the feel, thinking this alone is deserving of automatic praise from his audience (an odd thing for an artist to want, but maybe that's not a label he self-applies), while at the same time demonstrating that he has absolutely no idea how to translate Moore's metatextual ideas into the film at all. And that's a shame, because if Snyder has shown a talent for anything, it's in the visual aspects of his work. It wouldn't be beyond his reach to create some new visual shorthand or storytelling style, especially considering the amount of VFX to which he has access.

Sadly, the real chip on Snyder's shoulder is that we just don't get how smart he is.

Zack Snyder: I always believe the movies I've made are smarter than the way they are perceived by sort of mass culture and by the critics. We set out to make smarter movies than what they're perceived to be, do you know what I mean?

Deborah Snyder: I've thought about it, and I think some of it maybe is that if they have a visual style -- if they're from a graphic novel, if they happen to be genre -- I think people sometimes don't want to look to see if there's a deeper meaning. To see if there's symbolism, to see if there's other things going on. It's easier to dismiss it and say, "Oh, it looks like a video game."

Zack Snyder: And, also, "It looks like a video game." Well, maybe it's supposed to look like a video game.

Sure, it's tempting to look at Sucker Punch as just an exploitative, hastily assembled collection of nearly nude women fighting robots instead of the radical feminist tale of empowerment Snyder intended. You need to look at it as a metaphor.

And if Watchmen looks like a storyboard, well, maybe it's supposed to look like a storyboard. That's really all it looks like to Zack Snyder.

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