HBO's Watchmen has fired direct shots at Zack Snyder's 2009 film, passing comment on its hyper-styled violence and thematic underpinnings. Damon Lindelof's hit new show is ostensibly a sequel to the famed graphic novel, taking a look at an alternate 2019 where squids rain, police wear masks and effective gods live on Mars. In other words, it has next to no connection to Snyder's 2009 film.
The movie Watchmen was a direct adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore's work that was incredibly faithful to the source, at least from a visual and narrative standpoint. Snyder's Watchmen is a complicated beast, one that divides opinion as much as his subsequent DCEU matters. For every frame that recreates a comic book panel down to the pen mark or smart reimagining of the ending, there's a rejection of a nuanced theme or a weird riff on bat-nipples. With three distinct cuts (the theatrical version, a straight Director's Cut, and an Ultimate Cut that adds in animated movie Tales of the Black Freighter), it's a mammoth, if flawed, undertaking.
Lindelof and co. have been mostly respectful of Snyder's efforts in the press for HBO's Watchmen. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the showrunner praised the clear love on show and how it was likely the best straight version possible, but added "my primary criticism of the movie is you cannot take these 12 issues and jam them into a theatrical experience. What makes Watchmen Watchmen is its density, its slow-burn-ness." The series seems to be putting that thought into practice, telling a new story with a careful build of intrigue, but that's not the only way that HBO's Watchmen distinct from Zack Snyder's version.
How American Hero Story: Minutemen Critique's Zack Snyder's Watchmen
American Hero Story: Minutemen is a flashy prestige TV show in-universe premiering during the events of Watchmen episode 2. It tells the story of Hooded Justice, the original hero who emerged in 1938 (the same year Superman debuted in reality) and went on to form masked vigilante team the Minutemen (a second iteration of which the book's heroes later tried to form). This is an area of Watchmen history that is shrouded in mystery by the comic (subsequent stories in Before Watchmen have shed more light, although their true canon status is dubious) and would make for a fascinating exploration in the show. And while there could still be a Hooded Justice twist to come, at the moment, that's not what American Hero Story is for.
At first glance, this appears to be a self-aware jab at Peak TV. The title and premise is a clear nod to Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story (which has thus far set its sights on OJ Simpson, Gianni Versace and, next year, Monica Lewinsky). But while there's definitely a reading of the series as a parody of glamorously retelling real-life for mass entertainment (both cops and 7th Kavalry members watch live) while shielding the viewer from true horrors, its satirical target is something more connected.
No, what American Hero Story is parodying is Zack Snyder. With it's heightened violence, ramped up slow-mo, kinetic editing and clean cinematography, it's a boutique approximation of his distinct style on a TV budget that's unmistakable. But far more than a nod to the sensibilities of its cultural predecessor, Watchmen points out the flaws in Snyder's approach. The clip shown opens on a gruff voiceover detailing Hooded Justice's faked death and ends with a broad musing on secret identities and how the mask is the true face. This is an encapsulation of the brief-and-basic approach taken by many big-screen superheroes, a superficial dive into amateur psychology that has been personified by Snyder's critics. His Superman has no Clark Kent, his Bruce Wayne is so fused with Batman they're indistinct, and his Watchmen (renamed from the comic's Minutemen for branding purposes) have binary relationships with their spandex.
HBO's Watchmen Is Targeting More Than Just Zack Snyder
It would, however, still be incorrect to take Watchmen at only going this far. For sure, there is a critique of Snyder's rather surface-level adaptation of the original source material: American Hero Story shows the simplification of a murky story into one of more clearly defined grays with a heightened sense of self-importance in the act of simply being. But in contrast to the grim reality of the main show, it's really more a highlighting of how the media we so often consume is distant from the truth.
And so while it would be easy to read this as a case of "shots fired," there's a bigger picture to be considered. After just two episodes, Watchmen is already deeply concerned with the walls people put up around themselves and how they skew and simplify perceptions. What American Crime Story is, then, is like any show-within-a-show - an up-front presentation of those ideas. And, really, what is a better way for Watchmen to personify that then through the lens of a previous version?