Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” and the Rise of Toxic Fandom

The too-faithful adaptation turns ten this week, and was a harbinger of things to come—not for ’80s nuclear fears, but for meltdowns by die-hard fanatics.

When it comes to film adaptations of comic books, I’ve got something of a Rorschach (pun intended) test to help determine quality: if the source material didn’t exist, would this movie still be considered good?

For example, if the first time anyone had ever heard of a superhero named “Spider-Man” was a 2002 film starring Tobey Maguire, would it still have been well-received? Technically, Men in Black is based on a ’90s comic series. People probably don’t know that, but it doesn’t matter—because Men in Black is a great film. So is 2002’s Spider-Man. And The Dark Knight, Richard Donner’s Superman, Logan, and Black Panther. You don’t need to have grown up knowing these characters to appreciate their films. Similarly, no amount of comic lore and backstory could save Fantastic Four or Catwoman or Green Lantern movies from being terrible.

That being said, imagine if the Watchmen comic book never existed. No Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, no winning the Hugo Award in 1988, no recognition on Time’s list of the one hundred best novels. Instead, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was just a random action blockbuster set in an alternate 1985 that also happened to offer a critical and satirical perspective on superheroes, vigilantism, government conspiracies, and world politics amidst a Cold War dystopian America.

Watchmen might have been lauded as a landmark achievement. The Avengers meets Dr. Strangelove for the ’80s, accomplishing for superhero stories and comic book movies what the comic Watchmen had achieved on paper two decades prior. Screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse were nominated for a Saturn Award for their adaptation of the comic. Moore himself, who turned his back on Hollywood after getting burned by past adaptations like From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, acknowledged that the screenplay “was as close as I could imagine anyone getting to [a film version of] Watchmen.”

Was there too much nudity in the final film? Probably. Excessive violence? Definitely. Dated? Sure, the doomsday fears of the Cold War were thankfully never realized, making Watchmen feel less connected to any contemporary zeitgeist and more like yesterday’s news. But for its many faults, the movie was still a visceral, thought-provoking, powerful experience—especially if you take away the looming shadow cast by the comic.

Writers at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter would disagree. Their reviews of Watchmen at the time were generally negative; but then again, most reviews focused on the film’s journey from page to screen. “For years, fanboys of every age have demanded that the big-screen adaptation of Watchmen be an act of artistic fidelity on par with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel,” wrote Owen Gleiberman for EW. “Yet even Watchmen fanatics may be doomed to a disappointment that results from trying to stay this faithful to a comic book.”

Snyder doesn’t deserve the hell he’s been getting from fans about Watchmen—for either being too faithful to the comic, or having the hubris to attempt bringing the “unfilmable” story to the big screen.

Historically, strict adherence to comic book source material has been heralded in movies—at least compared to the far-too-frequent opposite tact, where screenwriters shamelessly rewrite stories to such a degree that the only similarity between a comic and its adaptation is the title (looking at you, The Amazing Spider-Man 2). Three years before Watchmen, Zack Snyder mostly impressed audiences with his CGI-powered adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. And speaking of lifting frames and lines of dialogue straight from the comic, Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City was praised by critics and audiences when it came out in 2005 and was awarded the Technical Grand Prize at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Persepolis creator Marjane Satrapi, who also co-directed the comic’s 2007 adaptation, insisted on animation over live action, resulting in an acclaimed finished product that looks almost identical to the book. Meanwhile, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World literally incorporates floating emojis and onomatopoeia—POW! KROWW!—straight from the pages of the graphic novel. Dick Tracy, limited to just seven colors by director Warren Beatty, was nominated for seven Oscars (and won three) in 1991.

Watchmen can’t hold a candle to any of the above films. (“They are shaping me into something gaudy. Something lethal,” Dr. Manhattan muses in the movie, possibly breaking the fourth wall.) But at the same time, Snyder also doesn’t deserve the hell he’s been getting from fans about Watchmen—for either being too faithful to the comic, or having the hubris to attempt bringing the “unfilmable” story to the big screen. There’s a new Watchmen on the horizon now, an HBO series by Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof set to debut this year. But while longtime fans who were polarized by the film adaptation in 2009 were still able to argue its merits and failings through reasonable discourse, one wonders whether the same is possible in 2019, where supporters of long-running franchises are finding more and more toxic members within their ranks.

They’re referred to as “toxic fandoms,” a phrase intended not to indict all the enthusiasts of a particular subject, like Star Wars or Rick and Morty, but a vocal, marginal subset who have weaponized their passion for pop culture through online harassment and bullying. Their battlefields are websites like Reddit and 4chan and—up until policy changes initiated a few days ago—Rotten Tomatoes, where users could bash films (like the upcoming Captain Marvel) by leaving negative comments before the movie was even released.

Early last year, an alt-right-identifying, anti-Disney fringe group threatened to use the online review-aggregation website as a platform for sinking the rating of Black Panther and before that, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Their cause for attack? The crime of having female heroes and “men being portrayed as idiots,” according to The Huffington Post. (Both Rotten Tomatoes and Facebook, where the group digitally gathered, responded by removing venomous comments and deleting their page.) But while the group’s efforts may seem juvenile, other incidents of abusive fandoms have had deadly consequences.

In 2015, a beleaguered fan of Steven Universe, a popular and socially progressive Cartoon Network program, attempted suicide after being accused of creating a piece of fan art depicting a character on the show as too thin. In 2017, cops were called when swarms of Rick and Morty fans revolted after they couldn’t snag Szechuan dipping sauces from McDonald’s. The fast food giant had begun reproducing the ’90s-era sauce as a promotional stunt because the stuff was referenced in a third-season episode of the cult cartoon; McDonald’s had no idea that what they were actually brewing was a proverbial shitstorm of angry, obsessive fans.

It wasn’t always this way. Humans have been telling stories in one form or another for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until 1893, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes over a waterfall at the end of The Final Problem, that the idea of outspoken “fandoms” really emerged. At the time, Doyle was looking for a way to be rid of Holmes so he could return to working on his highbrow historical novels, filled with what he believed to be important political statements and ideas. What Doyle got were angry letters from readers of The Strand Magazine, where the infamous short story was published, who were outraged by what they considered the untimely demise of their beloved Holmes. Some twenty thousand people cancelled their subscription entirely. Public pressure grew to the point that Doyle ultimately resurrected Holmes in a new story, The Adventure of the Empty House, in 1903. The fans were thrilled.

It wasn’t until 1893, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes over a waterfall at the end of The Final Problem, that the idea of outspoken “fandoms” really emerged.

As writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and historian David Payne point out in the BBC article, Holmes fans were the emerging middle-working-class. They were non-intellectuals, “the ones priced out of concerts, the ones who had to wait for the cheaper versions of popular novels … The Strand targeted them with what we’d now recognize as exciting, high-concept genre stories—mysteries and science fiction—from writers such as [H.G.] Wells and Jules Verne,” wrote Armstrong. That’s the same audience who might today harbor great affection for the types of comic book movies and cartoons that sophisticated critics sometimes turn their nose up at. In response, a defensive subset of these fans preemptively attempt to turn on those who would judge them.

“To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty,” wrote Reddit user Niekisch back in 2017. “As a consequence people who dislike Rick & Morty truly ARE idiots … I’m smirking right now just imagining one of those addlepated simpletons scratching their heads in confusion as [series creator] Dan Harmon’s genius wit unfolds itself on their television screens. What fools how I pity them.” Meanwhile, it’s not hard to picture tens of thousands of less-defensive Rick and Morty fans also scratching their heads at Niekisch’s cringeworthy sentiments. They shouldn’t have to put up with this.

And neither should J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, who have garbage fans tweeting and warning them, “don’t ruin my childhood,” as the directors take up the already-impossible task of creating new Star Wars films. Or Johnson and Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker Himself—who had to defend Last Jedi actress Kelly Marie Tran from being harassed online because she was a woman of Vietnamese descent.

When the Los Angeles Times asked Christopher Nolan last January why he wouldn’t have wanted to direct a sequel to Blade Runner, he replied that Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve “bravely took on what he referred to as a suicide mission … There are a lot of movies that are on such a pedestal that to try and either remake them or follow them up would be too tricky.” Later in the interview, Nolan likened Interstellar to being “in dialogue with” 2001: A Space Odyssey; a thinly veiled way of saying that, as much as he might’ve liked to adapt 2001 in some way, the legacy of the original was too formidable to broach. What would a follow-up or reimagining of 2001 look like with Nolan at the helm? Maybe a lot like Interstellar. But we’ll never know for sure, because the fandom scared him off. When it comes to new opportunities for storytelling, is having nothing really better than having something?

Ten years ago, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen paled in comparison to the original Watchmen comic created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. In many ways, the movie was doomed from the start, with no chance of breaking free from the shadow cast by the superior source material. But today, some of our greatest pop culture treasures also remain trapped in darkness by a small minority of venomous fans. To quote a Comedian, that’s the real joke. FL

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