Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is a fairly divisive film, and has been ever since its initial release in 2009. Critics who haven’t read the original graphic novel by Alan Moore point to its sprawling, twisty plot and morose attitude, calling it unwieldy or boring. Those who have read the comic source material level different criticisms, accusing the film of grave sins involved in its translation from the page to the screen, from plot changes to an overall missed vision when it comes to Moore’s original statement on power and violence.
This isn’t to say the film is universally despised, or even disliked in the majority. I’m a Watchmen defender, and have been for a long time. I admire its grim humor, utilitarian philosophical themes, unique universe and especially its well-choreographed and shot action sequences, which play out balletically in the sort of long, patient shots that are so unusual to see in modern action. It’s popular to bash Zack Snyder as a director, but if there’s one thing the man can do, it’s shoot an action scene—just don’t let him write the rest of the film, unless you want the result to be Sucker Punch.
There is, however, one scene of Watchmen that I can readily admit is unabashedly terrible. If you’ve seen the film, you already know what I’m talking about, even if you skipped over the title of this piece. It’s the sex scene. Yes, that sex scene, between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman). It has gone down in popular opinion as one of the worst sex scenes in recent memory, but in conception and execution it’s one of the worst cinematic sex scenes of all time. It’s everything, absolutely everything, that can be done wrong in the course of a movie love scene, and it manages to completely derail the film in the space of only two minutes. You can’t be told about it, though. You need to watch it. (Warning: Some nudity)
In case you don’t want to watch that at work, or perhaps have already seen enough Malin Akerman nude scenes scattered throughout the rest of her filmography, let me provide a little bit of context. The scene comes in a celebratory rush of endorphins as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre come down from the high of performing superhero work for the first time in 8 years, following a government ban on costumed heroism. It’s the first time they’ve successfully had sex, but not the first time they’ve tried—a few days earlier, Nite Owl attempts to have sex with Spectre but his awkward nebbishness results in sudden impotence and apologies. In the comics, it’s meant to be a scene about identity and reclaiming a certain level of empowerment in their lives—when they put their masks back on, i.e. their idealized selves, they’re vital and rejuvenated in all ways, including their sexual prowess. In another way you could say it also represents their childishness—the fact that they can’t behave as adults unless they get to escape into a fantasy world to play cops and robbers, rather than face the mundanity and powerlessness of their civilian lives.
These themes are entirely lost in the film, which presents it as more of a case of “Well, the world could end any day now, so let’s enjoy ourselves while we can.” The connection to the psyches of their costumed selves isn’t suggested, which has the unfortunate effect of making the entire scene come off purely as fan-service—a sex scene simply for the sake of having a sex scene, as audience members would presumably be expecting to receive in most any R-rated action movie. Instead of the comic’s immediate post-sex discussion, where Nite Owl and Spectre display disarming honesty about themselves, the film simply segues directly into plot. It can’t help but make the sex act feel completely cheap and perfunctory.
It also makes said act embarrassing to watch for the audience, because it seems like a guileless boob delivery vehicle. I can honestly say that this scene in Watchmen was one of the few times I’ve been distinctly and acutely ashamed to be sitting in a movie theater or tell my friends that I’d seen a film. “Ew,” I imagined them saying. “You say that Watchmen sex scene in a theater? Can we suggest a counselor for you?”
Of course, if we’re sticking solely to the visuals on screen, the scene would be only “bad” and not “legendarily bad.” What truly pushes it over the top is one of the most misguided song accompaniments you’ll ever see in a film: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Look, the man is a great artist, and “Hallelujah” is a great song that has been covered memorably by many singers, but this is not the music that any normally functioning human being would want playing during the initiation of sex. In fact, I would wager that this version of the song coming on during an intimate playlist would automatically terminate a sexual session at least 50 percent of the time unless the couple were exceedingly committed to ignoring it. It’s essentially the aphrodisiac equivalent to being surprise-doused with a bucket of ice water.
The song begins as the two awkwardly orbit one another, Cohen’s gravelly voice voice intoning “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord, that David played, and it pleased the Lord” as we’re presented with an extreme close-up of Akerman’s latex chest piece unzipping down the middle. Snyder’s voyeuristic POV shot combines with Cohen’s voice to produce something totally creepy, as if the now 81-year-old Canadian folk legend is leering at the two through a window like some kind of lecherous drifter, wondering how far to let the act progress before he smashes his way in and stabs them both.
However, the song then pulls a U-turn from creepy to sappy within the space of 30 seconds as Cohen’s voice is downplayed, a church choir enters and the instrumental swells, accompanied by shots of Silk Spectre gasping in ecstasy. A church choir, shouting glory to the heavens, as Malin Akerman’s hand comes down on the button that launches an orgasmic gout of flame from their floating sex pod. It’s a bizarre mishmash of tones within the same sex scene, and a song with sentiments that simultaneously come off as disturbing and saccharine, all at once. It almost doesn’t feel like it could be the actual soundtrack—it’s more like music that has been added to the scene by some enterprising fan-fiction author on their own private YouTube channel, although that person would at least have had the decency to use the Jeff Buckley version of “Hallelujah.”
It’s a scene filled with such unbridled weirdness that it makes one inevitably question whether Zack Snyder somehow intended the entire sequence to be some sort of joke or satire, but I don’t believe this is the case. The frivolity of it and the lack of meaning for the characters flies completely in the face of the more sober tone that the director is (mostly) trying to build outside of the action sequences, and considering how closely he attempts to evoke the tone of most other scenes directly translated from the page, it stands as a huge disservice. In the comic, the sex scene is nothing but sincere, a valuable moment where the audience comes to better understand both the strengths and potential weaknesses of the characters.
On the screen, it’s just awkward sex.
With a deeply unsettling soundtrack.
And having written this, I never want to see it again.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. He watched that damn scene too many damn times while working on this. You can follow him on Twitter.