There will of course always be the eternal debates which trail Snyder’s Watchmen movie. Does it genuinely reflect the political perspective and satirical subtext of Moore and Gibbons’ book or just mechanically replicate those elements? Is it a faithful adaptation to Moore’s vision or a slavish recreation unable to balance its own cinematic structure? Also, just how many shots of blue phalluses are too many? But if one sidestepped those for just a moment and instead focused on the movie’s context within the superhero genre, the truth is Watchmen was quite forward-looking for a film movement that was only beginning to reach peak dominance in Hollywood.
Adapted with excessive fidelity to the graphic novel (or at least the images and words used therein), Snyder’s Watchmen is a film that amusingly presupposes general audiences were as familiar with the concepts of superhero teams and lore as a general, adult comic book reader circa 1986. Take the Ozymandias character, for instance. Clearly an amalgamation of Batman, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, and several other famous superhero archetypes, Moore and Gibbons’ Adrian Veidt is a super-genius who understandably (at least at first) uses his massive intellect to aspire to more than stop petty crimes. Instead he retires to an icy fortress in Antarctica that is part Fortress of Solitude, part Avengers Tower, and part Karnak from actual antiquity. He also keeps a giant mutated sabertooth tiger (I think) that is never explained. Not even once.
Snyder adapted this background part and parcel. However, audiences who had only watched superhero movies in the 2000s or earlier—even those featuring Batman via Christopher Nolan movies or Reed Richards in Tim Story’s lightweight Fantastic Four flicks—would likely not pick up on the references or ironies. Even Jon Favreau’s Iron Man only come out one year before Watchmen, and back then even Marvel Studios was trying to ground their introduction of Tony Stark into something simulating the real world, with Robert Downey Jr.’s Stark entering the film while surviving the then very active American war zone in Afghanistan.
Audiences were still more than six years away from Stark creating an A.I. that would attempt to lift a city into the sky and drop it like a DIY asteroid in Avengers: Infinity War, and more than a decade out from Stark inventing time travel over a morning cup of joe in Avengers: Endgame because of the shenanigans caused by another product of comic-book genius: Ant-Man and his ability to shrink to the Quantum Realm.
In hindsight, the amount of comic book minutiae and silliness audiences have been inundated with since 2009 is dizzying—suggesting perhaps Snyder’s Watchmen was premature.
This is not to say Snyder failed to make adjustments for audience expectations at that time. The aforementioned Veidt is played in the film by Matthew Goode, and he sports a sculpted rubber suit, complete with prominent nipples, that purposefully echoes the Batman costumes worn by Val Kilmer and George Clooney in the 1990s. Whether by accident or serendipity, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach also sounds suspiciously like Christian Bale’s Dark Knight.