Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation is not up to par with the graphic novel for a variety of reasons. I actually enjoy the film overall, but find it a flawed work with a particularly weak second half. Despite this, through moments of gripping style and a general dedication to the source material, a few of Snyder’s scenes are masterful strokes that are beautifully woven into the larger scope of the Watchmen universe.
In particular, the opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan’s timeless “The times they are a-changin” is awesomely constructed and sets the nature and tone of the twisted world of Watchmen to great effect.
The montage opens by introducing the reality of real-world superheroes in the 1940s with Hollis Mason, dressed as Nite Owl, punching out a criminal as cameras flash around him. Instantly noticeable is Snyder’s decision to present the entire scene in slow motion, a brilliant inclusion that, when combined with Dylan’s tune, creates a hypnotic, nostalgic effect perfect for the arrangement.
A few shots later, Snyder captures an image of the minutemen posing for a picture in 1940. The costumes and general aesthetic work in these early depictions are authentic and stunning, stylistically drawing quite a bit from the images in the excerpts of Hollis Mason’s ‘Under the Hood’ in the novel.
Most notably, the montage works to detail the turbulent nature of superhero popularity as depicted in the media leading up to the present-day of the novel. After initial successes and stardom, heroes are shown to be murdered, retire, go mad, and fall out of favor with the public. In sequence, Dollar Bill is shown dead at a crime scene with cameras flashing about, Sally Jupiter is shown pregnant at a party with the rest of the minutemen under the banner “Happy retirement Sally”, and Mothman is shown attempting to flail and fight his way out of the arms of men in white coats taking him into an ambulance. In this swift motion, Snyder aptly depicts the rise and fall of the original Watchmen superhero.
Some of the most fun moments of the montage come from depicting bits and pieces of Watchmen’s alternate version of history. The heroes of Watchmen are shown to have had a direct impact on many major historical moments of the 60s. One shot faithfully recreates the Zapruder tape assassination of JFK only to pan away to a hill, revealing the Comedian incriminatingly holding a rifle, while another twists the moon landing by showing Dr. Manhattan’s face in the reflection of a space helmet, while yet another depicts Richard Nixon being elected for a third term. These subtle twists on history work greatly towards carving Watchmen’s singularly unique universe.
There are numerous other worthwhile tidbits thrown in this montage, from the powerful recreation of a Vietnam protest to Dr. Manhattan shaking hands with JFK. Each and every aspect of these depictions is beautifully realized and does an outstanding job of introducing not just the film, but the twisted, politically-charged world of Watchmen in general. In fact, there may very well be more to analyze and admire in the short 5 minute montage than the long remainder of the film. Somehow, despite being almost too faithful to the novel, the majority of the film feels more like an appreciation of the story rather than a true retelling, a valuable extension of the source material. This montage is the only aspect of the film that truly improves and builds on Alan Moore’s creation in a worthwhile manner. It’s almost stunning that the remaining two and a half hours of the film, while entertaining in its own right, fails to feel as necessary to Watchmen as its opening credits sequence. As aptly put in this admittedly random blog entry, “Alan Moore is keen on calling his original graphic novel ‘Unfilmable,’ but I daresay the first 10 minutes of this movie, in all its splendor, are unwritable. TAKE THAT!”
This fact is precisely why film adaptations should exist in the first place: to do something new with the material that couldn’t be done in its original form. Snyder’s film succeeds in doing this, but only for a few minutes.