Wide Angle

In 1986, Superheroes Needed Watchmen. Now Superhero Movies Need the New Adaptation.

The genre’s problem isn’t too many movies. It’s not enough risks.

A panel of Rorschach from the Watchmen comic next to a still of Tim Blake Nelson and Regina King as masked, costumed cops in the HBO adaptation.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by DC Comics and Mark Hill/HBO.

For the past three weeks, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been raging against Martin Scorsese’s contention that the movies are “not cinema.” The MCU is, by just about every conceivable measure, the most successful film franchise in history: The Avengers movies hold four of the top 10 slots on the list of all-time box office champions, and earlier this year Endgame surpassed Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie ever. But that previously undreamt-of cultural dominance isn’t enough. As Scorsese has been followed by Francis Ford Coppola, who called the Marvel movies “despicable,” and Ken Loach, who said they had “nothing to do with the art of cinema,” the backlash (or back-backlash) intensified as well. Marvel directors Joss Whedon and James Gunn responded with hurt feelings (although Whedon admitted he kind of saw Scorsese’s point), and fans went on the offensive: Scorsese and Coppola were old, out of touch, and generally washed-up—and besides, they were just jealous. “For those keeping track at home,”ComicBook.com crowed, “Marvel movies have earned more than double Scorsese and Coppola’s box office hauls combined.”

With due respect to the director of The King of Comedy and The Age of Innocence, the question of whether or not Marvel movies are “cinema” doesn’t seem as important as how they’ve shifted the definition of what movies are. As Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri puts it, they’ve “terraformed their own audience,” training viewers over 11 years and 23 movies to respond to certain kinds of stimuli, to superficially distinct but fundamentally unvarying tales of good vanquishing evil, of the world being saved again and again and again. They’re movies that speak to a global audience—one of the most memorable things I saw this year was a video of moviegoers in South Africa absolutely losing their minds at the climax of Endgame—and have helped usher in a new era of diversity in blockbuster filmmaking. I may have found Captain Marvel a featureless slog, but my 9-year-old daughter bounded out of the theater and proclaimed it the best movie she’d ever seen.

The trouble isn’t that there are too many comic book movies—really, it’s that there aren’t enough. There have never been more than three MCU movies in a given year, and even if you throw in all the others—the DC Extended Universe, the X-Men saga, even the Deadpools—you’d rarely top a dozen. But that tiny fraction, a little more than 1 percent of theatrical releases, dominates the cultural conversation for months at a time, and their sprawling release patterns crowd other movies out of the theaters: At its peak, Endgame was playing on more than one out of every 10 screens in the U.S. Defenders of comic book movies’ dominance frequently point to the history of the Western, a genre that dominated the U.S. box office for the first half of the 20th century. But at their peak, there were dozens of Westerns released in a year, and they came in all shapes and sizes: comedies, musicals, dramas, action movies. Comic books are one of the great American art forms, with a rich and varied history stretching back nearly a century. But comic book movies are a far narrower and more constrained microgenre, with little of the invention and elasticity of the medium that spawned them. The MCU’s movies have been praised for their recent efforts at diversity, but look past the race and gender of their protagonists and the differences between them are negligible. There are funny ones (with serious bits) and serious ones (with funny bits), but the underlying formula hardly alters.

That’s why we need Watchmen.

In 1986, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ miniseries transformed the popular understanding of what comic books could be. At the time, its most notable aspect was its exploration of how costumed heroes might exist in the real world—a conceptual leap that unleashed several decades of “realistic” spins on the superhero myth. But reading Watchmen now, what’s most striking is its formal adventurousness, the way Moore and Gibbons dance between past and present, foreground and background, plot and commentary. Every issue takes a different approach, often dictated by the psyche of its central character, serving as a self-contained work rather than just doling out its allotted portion of the overarching story. It’s an expansion of what comics could be, not just what they could be about.

Watchmen, the HBO sequel created by Damon Lindelof, trades the comic’s focus on the then-pressing threat of global nuclear war for America’s ongoing history of white supremacy and racial violence. Moore and Gibbons, both English, were dealing with distant archetypes; for the TV series’s American writers room, these issues strike closer to home. But the TV series shares the comic’s mutability, the sense that every time you sit down to watch or read, you don’t know what you’re in for next. (That’s true even from the first minute; no one would have expected a sequel to Watchmen to open with a depiction of a 1921 race riot.) Not every risk the show takes pays off, but at least it takes them, which is a claim you can barely make for any movie in the MCU.

Superhero movies throw the occasional curveball, but even then it’s only surprising because of the genre’s extraordinarily narrow range. The only interesting thing about Joker’s story of an alienated loner rebelling against an uncaring society is that it’s called Joker. It’s not doing anything that the Scorsese movies it steals from didn’t already do. Black Panther mainstreamed Afrofuturistic aesthetics for a global audience, but it’s also a movie set in Africa that makes a hero of a white CIA officer. In theory, the massive success of the MCU ought to allow Marvel to take more gambles, but the company’s breaks from orthodoxy are largely cosmetic, hiring directors from underrepresented groups but never allowing them to imprint a movie with more than a whiff of their own personalities. As fans have turned into stans and critics have been recast as haters, merely quibbling with the MCU’s success inevitably prompts a flood of bad-faith counterarguments. In response to Coppola’s “despicable” remark, Disney CEO Bob Iger invoked the name of Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler twice, as if the fact that Marvel hired a black director for its 18th movie should exempt the world’s largest entertainment conglomerate from criticism.

At its heart, the original Watchmen isn’t about superheroes so much as it’s about power. The story boils down to a conflict between Adrian Veidt, a billionaire genius who has honed his mind and body to the peak of human perfection, and Dr. Manhattan, whose near omnipotence has turned him into something other than the human he once was. And while that conflict has a winner and a loser, its ultimate moral is that regardless of their intentions, having that much power inevitably makes the holder monstrous. As Marvel and its corporate parent move closer to unparalleled domination of global culture, that’s an idea that even their most devoted fans should pause to consider.