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.
- Plot points
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.
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.