The Watchmen opening credits might be Zack Snyder’s best movie

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With Snyder’s latest film, Rebel Moon, arriving in cinemas this week, we’re taking a look at the director’s overlooked masterpiece – the first ten minutes of 2009’s Watchmen.

Whether we’re watching a heavily oiled Gerard Butler kick a man into a Spartan pit or Ben Affleck’s caped crusader grapple away from a barrage of big red lasers, Zack Snyder is a director who understands that, sometimes, a stylish image is its own reward. An unapologetically visual director, his critics would say that this style often comes at the expense of substance. Whatever you think of his movies, though, it’s hard to accuse one of blockbuster cinema’s most divisive auteurs of subtlety.

When Snyder adapted the seminal comic series Watchmen for the big screen back in 2009, the pairing of one of the most important graphic novels of all time with the director best known for making a half-dozen shirtless A-listers hit Persian soldiers with big shields raised a few eyebrows.

Fun as 300 and his Dawn Of The Dead remake were, subtext wasn’t a significant factor in either equation.

At the same time, the Watchmen graphic novel isn’t exactly subtle, either. From the neo-fascist Batman substitute Rorschach to an apocalyptic ending involving a giant space squid, Alan Moore’s furious Reagan-era satire wears its heart on spandex sleeves. In its own way, the fusion of two artists with such clearly defined tastes was a match made in heaven.

True to form, then, if 2009’s critics had one thing to say about Snyder’s follow-up to 300, it was that it flew too close to the source.

For the most part, Watchmen is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the 1986/7 comics run. Whole scenes and conversations could have been lifted from Dave Gibbon’s panel art. But one aspect which doesn’t appear in the comic, or even David Hayter and Alex Tse’s screenplay, beyond a couple of vague sentences, is the opening credits sequence.

Set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, Snyder certainly won’t be debunking those unsubtlety accusations anytime soon. Still, the slow-motion montage that follows remains some of the best and most efficient storytelling the director has ever produced, fusing superhero mythology with an alternative cold war timeline to brilliantly set-up the world of Nixon’s third term in office.

From the first shot, which sees original Minuteman Nite Owl saving a couple of well-to-do society types in an alley behind a Gotham movie theatre, it’s clear this version of history in both the real world and DC’s wider comic book universe is something a little different. Flashing through the emergence of superheroes in 1940 all the way to the 1976 presidential election, the rise, fall and rise again of America’s super-powered militia runs parallel to the country’s political right.

The latter half of the 20th century, especially from the perspective of an audience only familiar with its twilight years, is one dominated in popular culture by a few iconic images. That Snyder manages to cram most of them – from Bernie Boston’s 1967 Flower Power photograph to the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức – into a five-minute sting is no mean feat. It also adapts the comic into the cinematic medium far better than some of the film’s critics give it credit for.

The Vietnam War was arguably the first conflict to be authentically captured on film. The assassination of JFK and the great speeches and marches of the Civil Rights movement feel all the closer and more visceral because we’ve seen their celluloid shadows a thousand times over. With his trademark fondness for slow-motion and the framing of most of the shots with a camera flash, Snyder’s introduction puts that idea of photography and surveillance at the forefront of Cold War history.

All this is just as true in 2023 as it was in 2009. But in a post-MCU world also seeing the rise of right-wing populism, Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, and the introduction especially, have matured surprisingly well.

As the sequence progresses, we’re taken from a world which takes the existence of superheroes deadly seriously to one where Andy Warhol is treating them like Marilyn Monroe. Even in a universe where a glowing blue man can walk naked on the moon, superheroes are still able to come full circle and be reduced to the level of pop culture phenomena.

In a way, then, these five minutes prove more prophetic than the rest of the film’s more faithful comic-book adaptation. Completely disrupting what, by 2023, has become one of the world’s most enduring and important pop culture mythologies, the state of the superhero (with Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias posing for photographs with David Bowie at a movie premiere (EDIT – I’ve been told this is actually famed nightclub Studio 54 – apologies!)) by the sequence’s end can’t help but feel a little disturbing.

Even taken in isolation from the rest of the film – which still, in my view, holds up surprisingly well – Snyder’s opening credits paint a far more recognisable portrait of 21st century cultural politics than much of what’s come since. The history it shows might be an alternate one – but the combination of the political landscape with the superhero world feels startlingly familiar.

The more things change, it says, the more they stay the same. I told you it wasn’t subtle.

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