Zack Snyder's Watchmen is now ten years old and it was the pivotal spark that elevated the superhero movie genre to a newfound maturity. Just as the villainous Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) told Nite-Owl (Patrick Wilson), "Dan, grow up", Snyder's loyal (arguably, to a fault) adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal graphic novel irreversibly pushed the genre beyond "schoolyard superheroics" in the decade since it premiered.
Before Snyder's film arrived in movie theaters, Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen (the only graphic novel to appear in Time's 100 All-Time Greatest Novels list) was largely considered "unfilmable". Over the course of nearly 20 years, filmmakers including Joel Silver, Terry Gilliam, David Hayter, and Paul Greengrass all failed to bring Watchmen to the big screen (while others like Tim Burton and Darren Aronofsky were briefly attached). Hot off the success of 2006's 300, Zack Snyder took on the daunting challenge of directing Watchmen from a screenplay by Alex Tse and David Hayter that stayed as true as possible to the graphic novel while incorporating Snyder's visual flourishes and unique sensibilities. The theatrical cut polarized fans and critics, but after a longer Director's Cut and an even-more-complete Ultimate Cut were released on Blu-ray, Snyder's Watchmen earned a loyal legion of admirers. At this point, most fans are firmly decided on whether they support or dismiss Snyder's adaptation.
However, in the decade since its release, Watchmen has both directly and indirectly influenced the boom of superhero movies that followed it. Snyder's mature epic gave license to the Civil War that broke the Avengers apart, the personal loathing Batman (Ben Affleck) once felt for Superman (Henry Cavill), and Deadpool's (Ryan Reynolds) ribald, potty-mouthed antics. Love Watchmen or hate it, here is how the film's yellow smiley-face looms large over the last decade of superhero movies and forced the genre to grow up:
- This Page: The R-Rated Watchmen Has Aged Well And Is More Resonant Today
- Page 2: How Watchmen Made Superhero Movies More Mature
Watchmen Was The First Major R-Rated Superhero Film
Watchmen was by no means the first R-rated superhero film (the 1990s had The Crow and Blade films and the 2000s had The Punisher films, for instance) but it is the first truly high-profile R-rated superhero film which adapted the most celebrated graphic novel ever. Moore's story was for mature readers, filled with broken, disturbed, and distressed adults grasping for meaning and answers. The graphic novel was already overflowing with R-rated themes and harrowingly violent acts like the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) murdering a pregnant woman carrying his child in Vietnam and his attempted rape of Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino). Not only did Snyder refuse to shy away from depicting the comic's controversial elements, but he also added his own with his hyper-violent, blood-splattered action scenes showing bones shattered and limbs dismembered.
Snyder's Watchmen is absolutely not a family-friendly superhero film that's suitable for all ages - even some adults take issue with the material. The film unflinchingly contains matter-of-fact, full-frontal nudity from Doctor Manhattan (Billy Crudup), a graphic sex scene between Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) complete with a 'money shot', and numerous swear words, including F-bombs. Even for those familiar with the graphic novel, it was shocking for Watchmen to flaunt its well-deserved R-rating so flagrantly - especially in a film about comic book superheroes.
But in the decade since its release, Snyder's film opened the door for other R-rated superhero projects; it was Watchmen's influence that helped audiences become so wildly receptive to comic book movies that push the line, like the raunchy Deadpool. Since Snyder was one of the original architects of the DCEU, it's not surprising he brought his adult sensibilities to Man of Steel's controversial neck snapping of General Zod (Michael Shannon) or the sexy bathtub scene between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in Batman V Superman. It's also no surprise that DC really took the lessons of Watchmen to heart: the superhero series Titans and Doom Patrol on the DC Universe streaming service revel in F-bombs and extreme violence - they are all so emboldened because of Watchmen.
Watchmen Is Even More Resonant 10 Years Later
Arguably the most quotable dialogue in Watchmen is when Nite-Owl asked, "Whatever happened to the American Dream?" and the Comedian cynically replied, "It came true. You're lookin' at it!" That exchange feels eerily prescient today. Snyder's film is set in 1985, with flashbacks throughout the turbulent decades of the 1940s into the 1970s, but in the real world, Watchmen was released at the very beginning of Barack Obama's Presidency, where there was a sense of hope and optimism in the United States after 8 years of the Bush Administration, 9/11, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, a decade later, Watchmen seems to have inadvertently heralded an even darker present-day with the U.S. sharply divided, Brexit destabilizing the UK and Europe, North Korea becoming a nuclear power, and the rise of nationalism around the globe. The modern world actually seems scarier than Watchmen's 1985, but because Snyder's film is a period piece set decades ago, it has not only aged well, it also feels even more resonant and relevant today than it did when it was released. After all, in Watchmen's world, egotistical world leaders (like an elderly Richard Nixon, who clung to power with no term limits) posture while the planet is on the brink of catastrophe as the Doomsday Clock ticks down to midnight - sound familiar?
And while most modern comic book movies have shied away from reflecting the current political climate, the superhero conflicts in Watchmen helped prime audiences to accept the fracturing of the Avengers over the Sokovia Accords and choosing sides between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, as well as DC's greatest superhero icons, Batman and Superman, literally coming to blows over an extreme ideological dispute.