Beginning with Batman and continuing through the early 2000s, the superhero film soundtrack has been a consistent component of the genre’s marketing strategy. Remember “Hero” from Spider-Man, or “Kiss from a Rose” from Batman Forever? These earworms (and their accompanying videos) were certainly effective marketing for the films in question. While “serious” genre fare (e.g., Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) have eschewed this practice, a backlash bent on reinstating fun in superhero cinema through popular music has already begun: the relentless needle-drops in Guardians of the Galaxy, a key component of the film’s marketing, have brought superhero soundtracks back to the top of the sales charts.
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen also uses existing popular music, but to position the adaptation as a commentary on this earlier moment of the newly serious superhero film genre. The film’s soundtrack is far too on-the-nose to not be tongue-in-cheek (not unlike the facial metaphors in this sentence). While many viewers praised Snyder’s appropriation of songs alluded to in the original comics—e.g., Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” in the opening credits (the song is quoted in an advertisement for “Nostalgia by Veidt” within the comic) and Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” (quoted in Watchmen #10)—needle-drops that did not have such intertextual grounding tended to fare less well, with the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” during a sex scene taking the brunt of the offence.
The scene tends to be read as unintentional comedy, a reading that misses Snyder’s interest in parody throughout the film. While “Hallelujah” is undoubtedly one of the most (over)used soundtrack songs of all time, from Shrek to The West Wing, it’s rarely heard in its original version. Snyder uses the song’s dated, hopelessly-‘80s production aesthetic and Cohen’s gruff voice to undercut any sense of legitimate eroticism in the scene; where Alan Moore meant to reveal the fetishism inherent in dressing up in rubber and latex and fighting crime, Snyder asks us to pity these characters. Intertextually, it can be read as a parodic riff on “Kiss from a Rose.” Combined with mise-en-scène touches like the Batman #1 ads plastered across a dark alley or the nipples on Ozymandias’ rubber super-suit, it becomes clear that Snyder has not come to bury superhero comics, as Moore had, but to parody a bygone era of superhero cinema—soundtrack album and all.