Zack Snyder on ‘Watchmen’ legacy as ‘the anti- “Avengers” movie’
Director Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” was released in theaters in 2009, but the film has been in a near constant state of revision since then. First there was the director’s cut released on DVD, then there was “Tales of the Black Freighter,” a separate adaptation of the comic-within-a-comic in the original “Watchmen” book. Then there was an “Ultimate Cut,” with the “Black Freighter” segments re-edited into the film, giving it a three-and-a-half hour running time.
Now, there’s a new edition of the film, billed as the most complete “Watchmen” yet released, which combines the full “Ultimate Cut” of the film with Alan Moore’s original graphic novel. The set hits stores Tuesday.
Snyder, deep in post-production on “Man of Steel,” took time out to talk about the film’s continuing appeal to viewers and how it means even more today than when it was released.
HC: There’s another version of “Watchmen” coming out on Blu-ray. This seemingly never-ending interest in the film must be gratifying as a director.
ZS: It’s weird because I was talking with some colleagues and we were talking about “Watchmen” and saying that in a weird way, “Watchmen” becomes more and more relevant as more and more superhero movies come out. After “Avengers” really would have been the perfect time to release “Watchmen” because it’s the anti-“Avengers” movie. With “Avengers” being this phenomenon worldwide, it’s interesting what Alan Moore did with that graphic novel and what we tried to do with the movie. Alan Moore not only is a genius in the book he created, but also his knowledge of comic books and mythology of comic books and what the superheroes were in response to and what they represent is really beautiful and insightful. We try to get that across in the movie. When “Avengers” or whatever other movies get made, it confirms to me the mythological deconstruction that Alan was able to achieve in the book and we tried to achieve in the movie. It’s even more fun to watch the movie now, I think, as the general audience has become more and more familiar with these icons and this mythology. The deconstruction of that mythology is inevitable, but it really hasn’t been done. I think it’s interesting that we have this genre that is so rich, but except for “Watchmen” and “Kick-Ass,” which I would call more of a comedy superhero movie, I don’t know that they try to dig into the why of it that we do.
HC: That deconstruction of the genre means that “Watchmen” probably shouldn’t be the first comic non-comic book fans read.
ZS: In a weird way, it should be the last comic book people read. But the reason people say that is because of the things it deals with. These characters, Doctor Manhattan responding to the threat of cold war and nuclear weapons. These heroes ambiguously crossing lines between good and evil. How do you justify the actions these guys take? All that stuff. In that context, I think a non comic book fan is able to go, “Wow, that’s not just put on the stand and it kicks ass.” It becomes an intellectual exercise as well. It’s funny, when Chris Nolan came to me and said “Do you want to do Superman?” I was like “No!” That’s a difficult one. But I felt like I knew the rules. I understand the rules of Superman — not necessarily better than anyone else — but better than a normal filmmaker would. After doing “Watchmen” and digging that deep into the why of superheroes, when Superman is presented to you, I felt like I was in a unique position to say “I get this guy. I know what this is.”
HC: Was it a greater challenge to adapt the specific story of “Watchmen” or create a new story within the rules of Superman?
ZS: There’s different challenges, and I guess they’re equal. “Watchmen” is just so rich. The challenge with “Watchmen” is making sure that the ideas that were in the book got into the movie. That was my biggest stretch. I wanted people to watch the movie and get it. It’s one of those things where over time, it has happened more. People always come up to me now and say, “’Watchmen’ is the best superhero movie ever made. I’m always say “That’s super cool. That’s nice of you to say.” But it happens now, more and more and more than it did when it first came out. I think the studio thought it was a superhero movie. They thought it was this franchise-able superhero movie that was going to be sequel-able, like “Iron Man” or something. And I’m like, guys, this is something entirely different. I can’t even begin to describe how wrong that is. It’s a hard-R, deconstruction of the superhero genre, and that’s the fun of it. The fun is not, “Wow, we’re bad-ass. We’re these superheroes and we’re going to go kick the aliens’ ass or whatever enemy presents itself.” That’s not the fun of the movie. The fun of the movie is that these superheroes rape each other and they have super-destructive relationships and they don’t know how to cope with society or themselves. They have a lot of issues. That’s the fun: to see superheroes in that context. I think that was the thing the studio was like, “Wow.” When a general audience goes to the movie, like when my parents go to the movie, thinking, “Oh, my son made a cool superhero movie.” And they were like, “What is this?” There’s that part of it. I think we’ve set up this concept of what a superhero movie is and in a weird way, that mythology has been respected by filmmakers across the board. Then for a movie like “Watchmen” to come along. It’s period. The way it’s sewn into history. The way it uses the collective psychology of world politics to shape the superheroes. That stuff is like, “Whoa.” Some people feel there’s no need for that. That becomes a little exhausting for some people, but for me that’s the best part of it.
HC: Do you continue to get feedback on a film after it leaves theaters?
ZS: For me it’s slightly different because I’m plugged into fan culture in a weird way. So it does resonate a little bit deeper for me. I get another kick at the can. Like “Sucker Punch,” which wasn’t critically acclaimed in any way, but when I’m at Comic-Con I can take a renewed pride in the movie by the cultural expression that the movie has. I’m like, wow, it didn’t fall on deaf ears entirely. I think with “Watchmen,” this is a movie that had marginal box office success. I wouldn’t say it was horrible, but it wasn’t a runaway hit. But on the other hand we’ve had more DVD versions of this movie than any other movie I’ve ever made. I’ve done more interviews about this movie. I’ve done more panels and discussions. You can say what you want about how the movie is perceived by popular culture, but it definitely has a place in comic book history and comic book movie history because it has a way of dealing with a thing that the studios mine as pure gold. You gotta know what you’re mining, it’s not that easy. You don’t get to just stick your shovel in the mountain and come out with a pot of gold. There’s got to be a why to it.
HC: Are you fine with modest box office if it means the movie has a life later?
ZS: 100%. I couldn’t be prouder of the movie. It’s exactly as I intended it. I don’t get it anymore, but I think people have seen the reality. I used to get “Oh you changed the book. It’s not 100% pure ‘Watchmen.’” And I’d say, “Are you kidding me? Are you crazy?” “300” allowed me to make this movie exactly how I wanted it. I had a stranglehold on the studio that allowed me to make a super-personal love letter to that graphic novel. It’s funny that Alan Moore has said he’s against “Watchmen” the movie. But it’s the strictest rendering of his work, by far, in movie form. It’s probably better in a weird way, that there was the controversy and the struggle to get it made. I wouldn’t change it at all. It is pokey. It’s a pokey movie in the sense that it never let anyone in. Unless you’re letting the story wash over you. I go to it because I enjoy the superhero genre, but you also get confronted by some harsh realities. I’m incredibly proud of it and I wouldn’t change it at all.
HC: Have you read the prequel comics? “Before Watchmen”?
ZS: I have been checking that out a little bit. Not as much as you’d imagine. I’ve got them in my office. But I haven’t had time to crack ’em. I’ve flipped through them and they look pretty cool to be honest.
HC: So you’re not someone who believes that “Watchmen” should stand on its own with no sequels or prequels?
ZS: I took that graphic novel and made it into a movie, so I can’t really say, “Hey, no other adaptations!” That’s not really cool. And by the way, I don’t think it does anything to the graphic novel. It doesn’t hurt it. I feel like the legacy of the graphic novel is OK. If I made a three-hour ad for the graphic novel, then I succeeded.
HC: How do you see “Man of Steel” fitting into this mythology now that you’ve made “Watchmen?”
ZS: It’s a more serious version of Superman. It’s not like a heart attack. We took the mythology seriously. We take him as a character seriously. I believe the movie would appeal to anyone. I think that you’re going to see a Superman you’ve never seen before. We approached it as though no other films had been made. He’s the king-daddy. Honestly that’s why I wanted to do it. I’m interested in Superman because he’s the father of all superheroes. He’s this amazing ambassador for all superheroes. What was it about him that cracked the code that made pop culture embrace this other mythology? What we‘ve made as a film not only examines that but is also an amazing adventure story. It’s been an honor to work on. As a comic book fan, Superman is like the Rosetta Stone of all superheroes. I wanted to be sure the movie treated it respectfully.
— Patrick Kevin Day
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