Helming darker live action superhero films before it was cool, Zack Snyder changed the game with his ’09 graphic novel film adaptation Watchmen. A multigenre blend derived from graphic novelist Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Swamp Man, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Snyder’s vision explores humanistic flaws of those meant to save us. Over 13 years have passed upon this gem’s release. Does it stand the test of time? Cue Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ intro credit song.
Despite dark origin stories, most onscreen superheroes were traditionally shown to be saviors of humanity void of typical imperfections. Unless they were brooding over Gotham, protecting their secret identity, and keeping their loved ones safe, popular big screen and small screen heroes typically faced an impending threat, battled it out, and saved the day — and all in time for dinner. Bringing Watchmen to life, Snyder changed the game adding groundbreaking nuance to the genre’s mainstream paving the way for the blockbusters we enjoy today.
Prior to Watchmen, the closest blockbuster featuring complex heroes grappling with personal problems, vices and fame, was perhaps Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). Even then, Snyder took Moore’s graphic novel further and darker than Xavier’s team of misfits. This becomes obvious as the washed-up superhero Edward Blake aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan: The Walking Dead) finds himself plummeting from his high rise loft apartment at the hands of an assassin. Enter Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley: Shutter Island 2010) and his journal entries introducing a noir detective vibe set in the film’s present day of 1985.
Bringing us up to speed, Rorschach expresses his disgruntled attitude towards the dying age of heroes and the decline of human decency, and all while investigating The Comedian’s death. Flawlessly portraying such a flawed character, this role earned Haley two best supporting actor awards. Bringing intensity to Rorschach, Haley portrays this troubled hero with a strong moral compass. However, while this character trait points him in the right direction, he is still haunted by childhood trauma clouding his judgement. Despite his good intentions, Rorschach’s determined to tackle everything alone with a warped perception. This stubborn attitude periodically lands this well-meaning hero in trouble.
Listing off several heroes of the past, Rorschach makes clear how human these crime fighters of yesteryear were. Falling victim to their own vices, need for control, fame, and other personal shortcomings, many passed away, became hospitalized, faded from the public eye, or simply quit the game altogether. One such hero who dropped out of sight and out of mind is Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson: The Phantom of the Opera).
Having held onto hope that his way of justice would prevail, Dreiberg falters in his beliefs. Upon seeing chaos unravel in a flashback scene following the events of Vietnam, he asks The Comedian what has happened to the American Dream. Ready to embrace the chaos and pound back with an iron fist, The Comedian tells him they’re looking at it. Being ruthless, and perhaps the most troubled hero of Watchmen, The Comedian becomes more of a flashback villain. Played to perfection by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, this role undoubtedly contributed to his casting as Negan in The Walking Dead.
Dreiberg isn’t the only hero to lose hope. In the film’s present day, Jon Osterman aka Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup: Almost Famous) has been using his quantum abilities to see all probable futuristic outcomes to put a peaceful end to the Cold War. However, when unforeseeable problems arise amidst harsh misguided public scrutiny, Dr. Manhattan leaves Earth and parts ways with humanity.
With the future seemingly at its bleakest, hope is slowly revived as Dreiberg reconnects with Laurie Jupiter aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman: Rock of Ages) after she ends her relationship with Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup: Almost Famous). As more dark buried pasts come to light and reconciliation is made, our heroes come together while the true threat reveals itself.
Ending with a startling finale, Watchmen shows an exhilarating wave of hopeful inspiration with humanity peacefully coming together to rebuild. Seemingly ending with a partial cliffhanger, it comes to no surprise that Watchmen would find its way back into pop-culture. Debut streaming in 2019 on HBO, this groundbreaking graphic novel turned film became a critically acclaimed minidrama series starring Oscar winning actress Regina King (Ray 2004), Emmy winning actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman, The Matrix Resurrections), and Oscar winning actor Jeremy Irons (The Lion King ’94).
Taking place in an alternate future decades following Snyder’s Watchmen – a universe where the US won Vietnam and Watergate was never exposed – the miniseries of the same name was brought to life by film producer Damon Lindelof (Lost series, Star Trek 2009). Taking up the mantle, the Watchmen miniseries embraces nostalgia while making the graphic novel concept its own. Tying up loose ends from Snyder’s film, the hopeful sentiment of life’s continuation conveyed on the big screen translates onto the streaming screen in the series’ stunning conclusion.
With Snyder’s film earning 11 awards and garnishing 24 nominations while Lindelof’s miniseries hit big with audiences winning 57 awards, 11 Primetime Emmys, and garnished 79 award nominations, it’s safe to say Watchmen stands the test of time. Although the network has announced they are currently uninterested in pursuing a second season without Lindelof’s involvement, there’s a reason Moore’s work continues to resonate.