Violence as Fetish in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen

By Jason Haggstrom, April 18, 2010

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series Watchmen has often been cited as a deconstructionist text.1 By placing his story in a realistic setting and showing his heroes to be flawed, self-serving, nihilistic, and even sociopathic characters, Moore forces his readers to consider whether the archetypical superhero might be better left to the fantasies of fiction. One of Moore’s primary methods in this deconstruction is the use of graphic violence to illustrate the harsh reality of a world populated with superheroes that have no problem taking the law into their own hands and dispensing various forms of vigilante justice. Unfortunately, in creating the film adaptation of Watchmen, director Zach Snyder has elevated the violent aspects of the source text in ways that often alter the thematic purposes that the violence originally represented in the comic series.

In an interview with Empire Magazine, Snyder defended his use of graphic violence in the film by noting, "In some ways Alan’s punishing us for liking violence, for accepting that kind of violence. So unless it’s completely over the top it doesn’t really send that right message of ‘Oh really, you’re enjoying this ’cause you shouldn’t be.’"2 The most literal extension of this concept in the book occurs when the Comedian, beaten and bloodied by a fellow costumed hero, looks directly at the reader and states, “This is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot.” But Snyder’s film never allows for a moment of such self-reflexivity. The audience is never asked how they feel about graphic violence; instead, they are simply forced to participate in the director’s own personal cinematic fetish for showing it. Snyder’s overemphasis on graphic violence only serves to appease the gore-seeking audience—those who enjoyed the same tactics in Snyder’s previous, gore-heavy films, Dawn of the Dead and 300—while turning off the average viewer and alienating the book’s thematic use of violence as a method of superhero deconstruction. Instead, Zach Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen simply revels in violent images for their own sake.

Spoilers Ahead:

  • Plot points
  • Themes
  • Ending

The first scene in the film to go into excessive, gory detail for no apparent thematic purpose is that of Dan and Laurie being attacked by a gang in an alleyway. The scene in the book entails a few bloodied faces, an apparent broken arm (in a drawing of one of the muggers on the ground, after the fact), and enough punches and kicks to knock the assailants out of commission or send them running. But Snyder is much more interested in featuring the graphic nature of the fight, going so far as to alter the scene from one of self-defense (by an extremely capable set of potential victims) to one that is so imbrued with the blood of broken bodies that it can only be considered fetishistic on part of the director. Dan’s first act of defense in the film includes his punching of a man’s elbow so severely that the joint bends well past its natural point of extension, tearing open the other side of his arm and sending blood flying towards the camera. After a series of shots that feature Dan and Laurie throwing punches and kicks (not unlike those featured in the original comic) is a shot of Dan stepping on a man’s shin, breaking it in half. Snyder further extends the violence of the scene with shots of Laurie twisting a man’s head around until his neck breaks and of her plunging a knife deep into the neck of another of the assailants. When the carnage is over, the couple laughs it off as though unfazed by the fact that several people were just maimed and/or killed. This scene in the film also waters down the thematic purpose that was so overt in the original work: that these acts of violence are a sexual turn-on for the heroes involved. At the end of the scene in the book, Dan and Laurie are shown panting heavily before the two nervously make eye contact. Dan then rests his hand on Laurie’s shoulder, wantingly. A line from a character in an adjacent panel (and a different scene that is interwoven with the attempted mugging of Dan and Laurie) reads, "I think it safest to not pursue this line of thinking," metaphorically commenting on Dan and Laurie’s hesitant desires. The final panel of the scene in the book makes the symbolism even more explicit by comically showing Laurie lighting up a (metaphorically post-coital) cigarette. The film cares far less about this subtext, going only so far as to show Dan and Laurie briefly locking eyes before turning away from each other. Instead, Snyder has chosen to transform the scene to be not much more than an outlet for filming graphic violence. Snyder’s alterations also have implications for the story’s so-called heroes; Dan and Laurie are transformed into ruthless individuals who exhibit no qualms with killing another person in the line of heroic duty.

Click any image to enlarge

Snyder’s take on heroic action is perverted further by the alterations he makes to the scene where a gunman attempts to assassinate Adrian Veidt. The thematic intent of the scene in the adapted work is wildly altered by Snyder’s decision to amplify the savage acts of the gunman over the brutality of Veidt’s heroic actions. In the book, the entire sequence focuses on the movements of Veidt as he attempts to subdue his attacker. Veidt’s actions are shown as heroic, but the scene also asks the reader to consider the horrific aesthetics of such a violent act of heroism. The attack in the comic begins with the shooting of Veidt’s secretary who is shown falling backwards as blood gushes from the exit wound in her back. But the layout of the characters in this panel—as with the other panels in the sequence—isn’t constructed to highlight the violence perpetuated by the gunman. Instead, the emphasis is on the actions of Veidt as he maneuvers to disarm and overpower the assailant. Veidt quickly grabs a decorative vase and uses it to block the assassin’s second bullet, then swings it like a club to smash the villain’s face. This moment of victory is captured in a panel that spans the entire height of the page, framing Veidt in a stance of heroic power with an enormous, iconic "V" logo behind him. Veidt then slams the perpetrator’s face into a statue, turning it into a broken, pulpy mess. Throughout the sequence, bystanders stand in the background covering their mouths in disgust, and then consoling each other once the moment has passed. The spectators’ reactions are not simply out of fear from the attack, but in response to the gory reality of Veidt’s actions to end it. In examining the same sequence in the film, we find that Snyder reconfigures the sequence to emphasize gore over all else.

The shots in the filmed version of the attempt on Veidt’s life emphasize two things: the gun as it shoots directly towards the audience, and the fetishized close ups of body parts being blown to bits. As the gunman fires his first bullet, Snyder cuts to a low shot behind the secretary’s leg just as her calf explodes. The soundtrack is heavy-handed in projecting the sluicelike sound of blood as it ejects itself from the wound. Snyder then cuts back to the gunman in time to see the second shot (fired directly at the camera and, therefore, into the audience) before cutting to a close up of the secretary’s open hand as two of her fingers are blown off by the round. Snyder then repeats the same instance of extreme gore, this time capturing the destruction of the secretary’s fingers with a shot from behind her hand. Not satisfied with the gunman’s singular victim from the book, Snyder adds another in the form of Lee Iaccoca, one of the most recognizable, real-world businessmen of the last half century. In the most un-heroic of fashion, Veidt ducks behing Iaccoca in order to shield himself from the gunman’s third shot. The fourth round goes directly between Iaccoca’s eyes in a close up designed to highlight the comical quality of his glasses being split in two by the bullet before it pierces his skull. The gunman’s attack finally ends when Veidt grabs the decorative vase and knocks the attacker off of his feet. Even more confounding than the graphic nature of this scene in the film is Snyder’s appalling mis-reading of the source material. The book had not only shown Veidt committing an act of heroism, but had also asked the reader to consider the violence involved in such an act. The film ignores this thematic purpose completely, shifting the emphasis from the violence of Veidt’s heroism to the unrelenting (and expanded) violence of the gunman.

The film’s portrayal of Rorschach—a hero of the Batman archetype who sees justice in black and white terms, sometimes at the expense of morality—also suffers under Snyder’s direction. Snyder withholds or alters much of Rorschach’s back story, changing the way the audience perceives the tale’s most morally compromised "hero" in the process. When the story of Rorschach’s fight with the older boys who bullied him is relayed in the film, Rorschach is shown biting off a piece of the boy’s face, spraying blood everywhere. The final shot of this sequence is of Rorschach with a look of glee on his face as blood drips down his chin. Compare that final shot to the final panel of the sequence in the book where the flailing body of an enraged, crying (certainly not gleeful) Rorschach is held back by a group of people who outwardly regard him as an "animal" even though he was only defending himself against the two much older, much bigger boys who were bullying him. As readers, we see Rorschach’s rage and the violence he’s perpetrated onto the bullies, but we also understand his plight and come to empathize with him, even if only in small measurements; the film allows for little or no empathy toward the character of Rorschach. Snyder also elected to omit a critical piece of Rorschach’s back story: the tale of Kitty Genovese being raped and tortured while her neighbors watched, and how Rorschach reconciled his disgust with society’s inability to stand up to such horrors by choosing to spend his life doing something about it. These are the elements—missing from Snyder’s film—that paint Rorschach as a character of complexity rather than simple brutality. Without these traits, the Rorschach of the film is nothing more than a sociopath.

Although Watchmen portrays the world of superheroes as being unglamorously violent, Moore’s superhero deconstruction still finds a way to redeem the idea of heroism. The character of Dr. Malcolm Long, a man who took on a nihilistic viewpoint after working with Rorschach, resurfaces near the story’s conclusion where he sacrifices a clean resolution of his broken marriage in order to help break up a street fight. Long walks away from his wife, explaining, "It’s all we can do, try to help each other. It’s all that means anything… It’s the world. I can’t run from it." But this act of everyday heroism is completely absent from the film. Instead, Snyder only allows for the inclusion of Dr. Long in the scene to act as a victim in the city’s destruction. Having seen Snyder’s penchant for violence and gore, it is confounding to note that he has also removed the graphic scene of carnage that occurs after the city is destroyed. The book features images of dead bodies piled throughout the streets; images that carry strong thematic weight, forcing the reader to observe the death toll collected by Veidt’s plan to save humanity. These are some of the book’s finest moments that pull Moore’s themes together in an argument for acts of heroism but against the supreme power given to not only the most super of the superheroes but to the actual leaders of our world, leaders who took the world to brink of destruction during the Cold War.

When reflecting on how Watchmen influenced the comics that came after it, Moore noted, despairingly, "When I did Watchmen, I thought, great, people are going to feel compelled to look at the clever storytelling involved and they’ll feel compelled to match me or better me in coming up with ways for telling stories. But instead, it seems what most people saw was the violence, the grimness."3 Unfortunately, the violence and grimness that Moore describes is exactly what Snyder saw when he adapted Watchmen into a feature film. Alan Moore’s Watchmen asks its readers to consider what superheroes would be like if they existed in the real world, to recognize that some of our heroes would actually be nothing more than violent individuals who hold themselves unaccountable by the laws of the society in which they exist. But in adapting Moore’s work, director Zach Snyder chose to de-emphasize the concept of heroism, thus undermining the ironic relationship between heroism and violence that was so prevalent in the book. Instead, Snyder’s film portrays the story’s violence and gore in the most fetishistic of terms and wallows in images of graphic violence simply for their own sake.

Notes:

  1. For more on Watchmen-as-deconstruction, see Iain Thomson’s "Deconstructing the Hero"
  2. Source: Empire Online – Watchmen: Zach Snyder
  3. Source: The Idler – Conversations: Alan Moore
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6 Comments

By M. O'Leary on August 22, 2010 at 7:16 AM

Honestly, the glorification of violence was what got in the way of my viewing of the movie. The slow-mo fight scenes both in the alley and the prison were what I cited the most as my reasons for not liking it. And while those scenes stood out the most for me, this article has reminded me at disgust with the shooter scene. For me, there seemed to be a bit of misogyny at play in that scene. I understand that in violent films, the easiest way to paint a character as a monster is to portray them committing an act of disfiguring violence against a (usually attractive) woman, but the gratuitousness of taking what was originally just a one-shot execution and turning it into a two-shot maiming.

By Jason Haggstrom on August 23, 2010 at 9:51 AM

M. O’Leary: “Honestly, the glorification of violence was what got in the way of my viewing of the movie.”

I’ve long wondered how the film’s violence affected the audience, especially those who haven’t read the adapted text (M. O’Leary, I’d love to hear whether you’d read the book prior to seeing the film or not). Being very familiar with the Watchmen comics, I went into the film expecting to see some pretty graphic material. As you can see from my article, I was quite shocked at how that violence was portrayed in the film (not because on screen violence turns me off, but because Snyder completely missed the point). I actually found a lot to appreciate in the film, but Snyder’s distorted presentation of the violent aspects of the story was a real letdown and, as seen by your own response to it, was quite damning for audience reception/perception of the film.

By Gabrielle Gordon on April 28, 2011 at 2:31 PM

About 6 months ago I wrote a paper about the different experience of violence in the graphic novel and in the film version of Watchmen. I think some of the ideas that I presented in the paper might add to this discussion, so I am posting an abridged version below.

Violence in Watchmen

Film adaptations of novels have always been popular, and have always been controversial. An adaptation means change, and making changes to a story, particularly if the story is well loved, does not always go over well with audiences. By making any changes, the opportunity for comparison between the new version and the original is created, all too often leaving die-hards of the novel to the ever popular phrase “the book was better.”

A palimpsest is a parchment or tablet where the original writing has been scraped off, but traces of it remain, even as the parchment is written over.(Lundy, T.) A palimpsest is a good metaphor for appreciating the adaptation of a story from a written form into a film. Often, when a story is adapted to a film, we must evaluate the film as its own telling of a story, influenced by, but separate and apart from the original.

The adaptation of a book to film takes on a whole new dynamic when the book also has a graphic element. The incorporation of images from a graphic novel onto the screen may be even more difficult than an adaptation of a text, because the audience already has an idea of how the iconic images should look.

The 2009 film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen, attempted this transformation from graphic novel format onto the big screen. The film goes far beyond the idea of a palimpsest, bringing the graphic novel to life with a direct intertextual relationship between panels in novel, and frames in the film. Director Zack Snyder paid enormous attention to detail in creating the film Watchmen, and replicated the characters, costumes, settings and scenes in as accurate a likeness to the novel as possible. Though parts of the original plot were omitted in the films rendition, and the story line was rearranged, over all the film feels as though it is a live action animation of the graphic novel.

Although the film and the novel are nearly identical in most aspects, the experience of reading the book is much different than the experience of watching the movie. Perhaps the most pronounced difference between the two is how much more violent the film seems in comparison to the novel.

Neither version of the story is lacking in violence. Both the novel and the film open with prophetic words from Rorschach’s journal, which set the dark theme of the film. “The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown.”(Watchmen) Rorschach’s doomsday observations bring us into the world of the Watchmen, a world rich with all things dark and demented. Watchmen is the story the wrath of humanity and of the end of civilization as we know it. As such, violence is intrinsic to the plot.

In both versions of the story we experience the murder of The Comedian, the rape of the Silk Spectre, and Rorschach’s discovery of a little girl who has been fed to dogs. Both versions of the story depict wars, countless fights, and plenty of brutality. At the end of both versions of the story most of the world has been obliterated by nuclear bombs. The film does not appear to have added any additional violence to the story. In homage to the novel, some of the violent scenes are taken frame by frame from the pages of the book.

So it is not that the film is actually more violent, but that the film seems more violent than the novel. The heightened impact of the violence in the film is due to the viewer’s decreased control over their own experience, the intensified visceral affect of the medium of film, and the films ability to utilize multiple sensory manipulations.

When watching a film, the viewer is passive in their experience. To watch a film is to enter into a world that is entirely out of your control; a world when the sights and sounds are projected on to you as they are projected onto the screen. In a film each frame is projected onto the same spot, the screen—while each frame of comics must occupy a different space. Thus, the space between panels, called the gutter, on a page of a graphic novel serves the same purpose as time does for film. However, because the reader is in control of that pace that they move through over the panels and through the gutter, but out of control of pace at which the film moves through a scene, the impact of the violence is in direct correlation to the time spent on a scene. With out the ability to control the pace or extent of violence, the viewer is assaulted just as the victim is in the film; without the ability to say “Enough!”

The second reason that the film seems more violent than the book is because films have more directly implicated visceral responses than books. This is because the medium of a book is more abstract than film.

Words are abstract icons. (Lundy, T.) Words do not loot like the object or idea that they represent; they only carry meaning because meaning has been assigned to them. If we imagined a continuum of abstraction, words would be placed on the farthest end of the spectrum. The next step on the continuum of abstraction would be a drawing, where they image holds a likeness to the object or scenario that it depicts, but it is still a rough representation. At the end of the continuum of abstraction is film, a medium where sights and sounds are as close to reality as is possible to depict in a two dimensional medium. Violence seems more concrete in this medium than in another medium because it is a closer representation of reality. Because a graphic novel is limited to only abstract mediums, the violence seems less “real” than in the film.

Beyond the more abstract nature of a books format, a film also has many tools other than visual representation at its disposal. A graphic novel is composed of pages, which act as frames for the panels of images. The power of the graphic novelist is restricted to only what they can portray within the panels.

The violence is more notable in the film version of Watchmen because the directors utilized every aspect of film making to maximize the intensity of each scene. A film does not have to rely on what is displayed in its frame by frame sequence in the same way that a graphic novel does. The mise en scene of every scene includes the settings, props, actors, lighting, sounds, and cinematography. Intensity can be created in a film through the manipulation of any of these aspects, and through the use of editing.

The addition of sound to the frames incorporates a human sense that books do not. The scene where The Comedian is thrown out the window is intensified by the sound of glass breaking, the rape of the Silk Spectre is made more horrible by her screaming, and the growling of the dogs as they fight over a little girls bones brings a new level of horror to the scene.

The film adaptation of Watchmen pays incredible tribute to the classic graphic novel from which it was spawn. The film goes above and beyond what most film adaptations are capable of, and manages to incorporate direct textual elements from the book. However, the film differs from the novel in that it is more intense visually, viscerally, and emotionally. This heightened intensity is due to the viewer’s lack of control over their viewing experience, as they are at the mercy of the film. Additionally, the violence is intensified by the loss of abstraction from the medium of the story, and the use of film elements that heighten the intensity of the piece.

Works Cited

Watchmen. Dir. Zach Synder. Perf. Jackie Earl Haley and Patrick Wilson. Warner Bros PIctures, 2009. DVD.

Lundy, T. Lecture Notes. ENGL1601-OL1.Telling Tales. University of Colorado Denver. December 11, 2010.

By Sergio Repka on February 7, 2012 at 3:11 PM

I would suggest that one of the problems with the over-reliance on violence is how it actually reduces its power to disturb. I’m sure I am not alone in reacting to the levels of (lovingly rendered, ultra-realistic) violence in films like Watchmen by holding on to the disbelief I would normally suspend as part of the pact of watching a work of fiction. (Actually, suspension of disbelief could be said to be a requirement of documentaries as well, but that is for another discussion.) I am aware I am not watching a snuff movie, and therefore, the more realistic the dismemberment, the more I am alerted to and reminded of that fact. It has in fact the effect of jolting me out of the picture: “this isn’t happening.” Conversely, the relative staginess of less realistic depictions of violence appeals to my willingness to join in from the very start, and the effort of acceptance required means my level of emotional investment is likely to be higher.

I am of course talking about something of an Achilles’ heel of cinema, that the conjunction of sound and colour image (and now, improved 3-D, though I for one am not yet convinced) presents you with a fait accompli that requires little imaginative effort on your part. This can lead, and often does, to images that are excessively literal in relation to their sources, in the case of adaptations. I fear it may also lead to ever-diminishing returns, in that the closer to “life” violent sequences become, the less effective they will be for anything other than entertainment. (It looks so real that you know it can’t be real, so it’s okay and it becomes fun, just like when Bugs shoots Elmer Fudd in the face.) Personally, I wouldn’t put my money on the likelihood of the film version of Watchmen waking a single person up to issues of brutality and the politics of violence.

Jason refers to the completely different effect of the Comedian’s “This is what you like, huh? This is what gets you hot” line in book and film; perhaps another useful comparison would be to the various occurrences of similar speeches throughout Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games”, which, whether you think it was successful or not, is certainly far more confrontational on the issue of audience responsibility.

By Jason Haggstrom on February 8, 2012 at 9:44 AM

Sergio, I love what you have to say here. Your suggestion that the film’s (or any film’s) over-reliance on violence can actually reduce its ability to disturb is spot-on. I am very interested in how people who had not read the source text reacted to the film’s overwhelming images of violence and gore. I’ve concluded that there is a dichotomous split in how audiences reacted to the film that are very much in alignment with yours:

1. The audience is so overwhelmed by the graphic violence that they are disgusted and unable to suspend their disbelief.

2. The audience accepts the film’s violence as cinema, and do not consider it to be disturbing.

In either case, the audience is unable to consider the violence as a thematic statement. They are either too disturbed to place the violence in context, or they are so complicit with the violence that its meaning as anti-violence is lost. This is a major failure on Snyder’s part. He revealed in interviews that he understood that the violence of the book is really anti-violence, but his direction failed to replicate the sensation.

By Sergio Repka on February 9, 2012 at 4:54 PM

Thanks! I enjoyed your analysis and the readers’ comments a lot too.

I guess the dichotomous split you mention might be a simple defence mechanism: since it would be too destabilising to truly accept believable violence in the context of entertainment, audiences need to pull back and remind themselves that it’s just make-believe. (This is much harder to do with images that look more prosaic, and therefore do not sound that kind of alarm bell, or with sounds and suggestion, because then you are necessarily engaged in helping build the picture, as it were. Which is why it’s the more discreet pictures that leave the greater psychic imprints, that watching Funny Games is truly horrific (if you’re not put off by the open hectoring), or why watching José Luis Gómes push Penélope Cruz down the stairs in Broken Embraces seems much more brutal than far more detailed sequences of domestic violence in other films. Or maybe it’s just me.)

I’ve made the same point elsewhere, more in passing but in the context of what I think might be a practical (not moral) problem at the heart of the mainstream acceptance of ultra-violent entertainment: if this kind of entertainment is justified as an escape valve for transgressive feelings, what happens when it ceases to be transgressive? (If you feel like it, http://scrapheap.info/2010/09/mayhem-on-tap/)

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