In spring of 2009, the highly anticipated big screen adaptation of Watchmen, a seminal and medium-changing graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, was finally released in theaters.
That this film even happened was a minor thermodynamic miracle: after years of development hell and could-have-been’s, and then a last minute legal dispute between Warner Bros and 20th Century Fox just weeks before its premiere, the Zack Snyder-directed opus hit pop culture like a mutant squid suddenly dropped into downtown Manhattan.
Reactions fell all over the board. The general consensus, measured in terms of box office, seemed to be indifference, as a large portion of the mainstream audience (expecting something akin to the recently introduced MCU) stayed away, unfamiliar with the source material and turned off by a perceived inaccessibility.
In fan circles, Watchmen proved far more divisive, with many disappointed in the movie to a level which provoked rabid hostility towards both the film itself and Zack Snyder. A common complaint among both fans and critics was that Snyder had completely misread the comic book on which his film is based. Instead of understanding the graphic novel’s critical dissection of the superhero genre and the pitfalls inherent in the notion of a masked avenger, he had produced the opposite, creating a movie which celebrates superheroes and the borderline fascist inclination towards abusive power they represent.
According to this reading, the comic was a subversive deconstruction of tropes; the film, a clueless and juvenile affirmation of those same impulses, slavishly attempting to recreate every beat from the graphic novel but missing its spirit.
To this day, I have absolutely no idea what movie those people are talking about.
When I first saw Watchmen, I knew very little about the book. I had some awareness of the basic premise, but superhero stories have never been my bread and butter. I expected very little, mostly a series of endless action sequences recreating moments from a comic I’ve never read, an inside reference lost on me. After all, this was from the director of 300, which can be politely described as gorgeous but troubling jingoistic garbage.
Instead of all that, I watched what I found to be an immersive, challenging piece of entertainment, something that both compelled and shocked me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. Everything about it just felt alive and vibrant . . . the Blade Runner-ish atmospherics, the emphasis on dialogue and characterization, the willingness to highlight disturbing implications instead of downplaying them.
In light of the new HBO series, the Watchmen film has been subject to a reappraisal. But in contrast to other movies that were once critically dragged but later granted a second life, the reevaluation of Watchmen looks to have landed at the same conclusion, that of a well-intentioned mess whose reach far exceeded its grasp.
And yet the movie also continues to inspire ardent defenders, a position about as culturally popular as speaking out in favor of the final season of Game of Thrones.
A full decade later, Snyder’s Watchmen remains controversial and polarizing.
Much of the criticism aimed at Watchmen concerns its relation to the comic. Zack Snyder has taken a lot of heat for translating the graphic novel so directly that it can feel like a 1:1 karaoke version, bound in its devotion to the point where the film is unable to have its own life. Same as Snyder’s approach to 300, certain images from the book are meticulously replicated down to the last detail.
Yet this complaint is perhaps an oversimplification. For all the talk of the movie existing merely as a live action version of the comic, there are plenty of visuals unique to the adaptation.
Take the opening, where the Comedian is attacked in his apartment. When I first saw Watchmen, I assumed that the imagery was all just taken right out of the book, such as a heavily stylized shot where a coffee mug hits the front door in slow motion, knocking the “1” off of a 3001 apartment number. Visit the graphic novel and you’ll find no such moment; the murder of the Comedian lasts a few panels and that’s it, lights out. Nearly all of this fight scene consists of shots specific to the movie and not the comic.
In fact, the film’s most bravura sequence is 100% independent from the source material. The opening credits depict a series of tableaux documenting the alternate timeline presented in the story, from the late 30s through the 70s. We walk through various iconic moments from American history, but filtered through the lens of a world where superheroes are real.
The famous V-J Day kiss between a sailor and a nurse is replaced with costumed adventurer Silhouette beating the aforementioned sailor to the punch. (An especially interesting touch considering that this famous picture is now considered a document of unwanted advances at the very least, as the real life woman in question — in actuality a dental assistant, not a nurse — has clarified the kiss was non-consensual and left her with mixed feelings. This is made even more intriguing here as the Silhouette is a woman, and the nurse becomes her girlfriend). John F. Kennedy shakes the hand of the godlike Dr. Manhattan on the White House lawn, and Manhattan is later shown as present for the moon landing. And in a truly chilling moment, the JFK assassination is restaged, but now with the Comedian as the shooter, escaping from Dealey Plaza unnoticed.
Warhol, Brezhnev, Castro, the atomic bombing of Japan, the Kent State massacre, Bowie, Jagger, the Village People, Studio 54, a monk self-immolating in protest of Vietnam, Nixon, riots, Molotov cocktails . . . all parade across the screen one after another in a montage set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
Even those with harsh opinions of the film tend to speak highly of this sequence, a truly original and audacious bit of filmmaking which may be the best thing Zack Snyder has ever directed. It also interweaves various fragments of the characters’ lives into the larger social landscape of the era, a sly, unobtrusive way of introducing exposition.
Another highlight occurs halfway through the film, in a montage detailing the origin of Dr. Manhattan, and how he transformed from a physicist named Jon Osterman into a post-human with unlimited supernatural powers. Jumping back and forth between various time periods (in order to demonstrate Jon’s nonlinear perception of the universe) as Dr. Manhattan narrates his own story, the scene is scored with two hypnotic pieces by Philip Glass, which creates a mesmerizing effect of sight and sound. Though this portion of the film is directly based on an issue of the comic, the difference between the two mediums renders an exact replication impossible, leaving it to Snyder and editor William Hoy to craft their own approach.
This is not to suggest the movie doesn’t go to great lengths to duplicate the graphic novel. It absolutely does. But the notion that the film is incapable of thinking for itself grossly misrepresents the situation.
As proof, look no further than one of the other main charges against Watchmen: there are too many deviations from the source material.
When any work of popular fiction is adapted to the screen, it will always be greeted with the inevitable chorus of complaints over what’s been altered in the translation. In the case of Watchmen, those protests ranged from the understandable (many subplots and side characters were omitted) to the nitpicky (Adrian Veidt’s physical appearance is markedly different from the comic) to the outright bizarre (Snyder made Dr. Manhattan’s penis too big).
However, the most notable change is without a doubt the ending.
Instead of Adrian Veidt’s plan from the comic — where the superhero formerly known as Ozymandias creates a genetically engineered psychic squid monster to trick the world into believing Earth is under siege from extra-dimensional enemies — the movie has Veidt replicating Dr. Manhattan’s electromagnetic energy signature and using it as a weapon to annihilate major cities around the globe. While Adrian does frame Dr. Manhattan in the novel (misleading people to believe that Jon’s electromagnetism is carcinogenic), here he paints Jon as a full-fledged villain.
This results in one distinct thematic difference between book and movie. In the former, though people worry Dr. Manhattan might give them cancer, he has nevertheless in many senses replaced God, the comic’s subtext leaving him to be considered a possible line of defense against another “alien attack,” hopefully watching out for humanity from afar. In the latter, nations come together in fear of him and his power, positioning Jon as the nemesis of the human race, a new type of Satan.
Removing the Lovecraftian nature of Adrian’s trick also eliminates one other nuance: the creature’s telepathic mind was achieved by cloning the brain of a recently deceased clairvoyant. The fact that Veidt’s aims succeeded — sending out a shockwave of nightmarish psychic energy killing millions — indicates that Dr. Manhattan is not the only being with otherworldly abilities.
The squid plotline was jettisoned due to being borderline impossible to set-up properly in an already overlong movie. Given the demands of cinematic storytelling, and considering how Viedt’s scheme is so intentionally convoluted and left-field, attempting to introduce such an idea late in the game would just not do that story justice.
What’s amazing is how well the movie version of Adrian’s plan effortlessly replaces the events in the novel. There’s even a preexisting basis for it, since in the comic Veidt studies Jon’s superpowers in order to perfect the method of teleporting the squid and also to create a tachyonic space-time distortion which prevents Dr. Manhattan from being able to see beyond a certain point in the future. (This article has just reached all new levels of nerd).
In the movie, Dr. Manhattan assists Adrian in developing new sources of energy which can replace fossil fuels, unaware that Veidt is copying and harnessing his essence. This too has origins in the graphic novel, with Veidt at the forefront of alternative energy forms, such as battery operated cars powered by a synthesized version of Jon’s electromagnetism.
The film takes these plot points and spins them further, replacing the squid with the EM equivalent of nuclear bombs dropped on whole cities. Considering the book’s eerily prescient vision of a sudden and calamitous attack on downtown Manhattan — imagery which has only grown more relevant since 9/11 — it would be impossible for any adaptation of Watchmen to ignore it, and indeed Snyder intentionally evokes that real-life tragedy without any overt exploitation.
On that note, another frequent criticism is how the film takes place in 1985 as opposed to modern day, where the story could have addressed terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instead of more distant events such as the Cold War and Vietnam, and avoid relying on caricatures of figures like Nixon and Kissinger.
At the time, Snyder stated that rewriting to reflect such hot button issues would make it feel too much like a political commentary and less something that could be open to interpretation. (Though it should be noted that Veidt’s effort in the movie to create alternative forms of energy has its origins in today’s environmental crisis).
For sure, there’s an element of irony in the hot take that Watchmen’s observations are irrelevant because of its setting and that it should instead confront the politics of today, seeing as how Moore and Gibbons cloaked their criticisms of the 80s — Reagan, Thatcher, the USSR, the arms race, capitalism, corporatism, fascism — in a political satire about Nixon in his fifth term while superheroes take the law into their own hands. And Watchmen’s version of Richard Nixon is less an attempt at a realistic portrayal and more in line with the cartoon-like renderings found in political propaganda, similar to how Hitler is presented in Inglourious Basterds, each of them an exaggerated parody of a person whose natural setting already borders on the parodic.
That in recent years we’ve witnessed a buffoonish, corrupt narcissist elected to the White House, a rise in the threat of nuclear war, resumed tensions with Russia, and a spike in white supremacy, authoritarianism, and fascist sympathizing, evidences beyond a shadow of a doubt that the satire on display in Watchmen is not only still relevant but as timely as ever.
One disappointing but likely unavoidable excision is the book’s sprawling cast of supporting characters, as the comic takes extra effort to illustrate snapshots of the people who will be sacrificed by Adrian Veidt’s actions. These are the every day folks — not superheroes, not high level politicians — whose lives are impacted by the decisions of those who wield power. While we do glimpse some of them in the movie, especially in the longer cuts, it’s still nowhere near the full emotional impact of the graphic novel.
Sex and Violence
Zack Snyder, who has occasionally found himself persona non grata in fan communities, often comes under fire for his unsubtle visual style and fetishistic approach to portraying violence and sexuality. This especially puts him at odds with those who hold Watchmen dear, a general feeling that his attitude towards the material completely misses the point.
Look deeper, however, and a surprising amount of the film’s most criticized aspects can be found right there on the pages of the comic.
For instance, take Walter/Rorschach’s narration, delivered with a monotone growl by Jackie Earle Haley. A frequent complaint is that the movie attempts to heroicize the character — despite Rorschach clearly being an unstable and reactionary lunatic — and that this comes across in the narration, treated so dead serious by Snyder as to be accidentally comical in its ridiculousness.
The problem with that observation is that it’s unfounded. In the graphic novel itself, Moore writes Rorschach’s journal entries as a send-up of hard boiled detective stories, the rantings of a disturbed, totalitarian madman completely lacking self-awareness, the hyperbolic nature of his musings meant to be darkly funny.
It’s impossible not to laugh at a sociopath like Rorschach asking “Why so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?” Just as the book version of him is an exaggeration of dimestore noir tropes, the movie rendition of Walter is stylized as a riff on gritty, humorless superhero films such as The Dark Knight.
In terms of characterization, Rorschach is perhaps the most faithful to the comic, pretty much a direct transplant from page to screen. The only elements from the book missing here are an additional piece of Rorschach’s past (he decided to become a masked vigilante after the Kitty Genovese murder), a brief subplot surrounding the prison psychiatrist who interviews him (Dr. Long is so shaken by Walter’s stark, uncompromising nihilism that it triggers an existential crisis), and a bit more of his general bigotry and misogyny (not everything from his journal could be used in the film’s narration, though enough of the point gets across). Almost nothing about Rorschach has been embellished for the adaptation.
Same goes for how the film handles sex and violence. The accepted narrative is that Snyder amped up these elements since he has such an unwavering hard-on for titillation. But again, go back to the comic and you’ll see something remarkably similar.
The violence in both the graphic novel and the movie is intended to horrify and sicken, not excite. When Dr. Manhattan causes people to explode into barely identifiable fragments of bone and intestines with a mere wave of his hand, when the Comedian burns an injured Viet Cong soldier alive and later shoots a pregnant woman, when Rorschach hacks a child killer’s face to pieces with a meat cleaver after slaughtering the man’s dogs . . . none of this is heroic, fun, cool, or flippant.
Snyder takes a sharp turn from how superhero films normally deal with violence, instead adopting an approach more in line with transgressive 70s cinema — A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Straw Dogs— portraying violent behavior not as a perfectly acceptable solution with no consequences but as unsettling acts of cruelty and sadism of which anyone may be capable.
If it seems fetishized, that’s entirely the point. The characters are fetishizing themselves as self-created totems of primal desires: sex, death, domination . . . the same underlying compulsions which drive fascistic tendencies. Of course Dr. Manhattan has a giant dong; his entire existence is completely preposterous, a living embodiment of the man-as-god ideal, built like a mystic Adonis and literally possessing the powers of a deity. Both the movie and the book take a dig at the volatile, poisonous masculine posturing which often fuels the superhero genre.
During the excruciating scene where the Comedian assaults and attempts to rape Sally Jupiter, it’s so fetishistically charged not because the movie is going “hey isn’t this scenario really hot?,” but because the Comedian openly adopts the animalistic urges bubbling under the surface of costumed heroes. He is fetishizing this because, to him, it’s all just a power game.
This parallels the approach Snyder took to his much-maligned followup, Sucker Punch. Dismissed and reviled upon its release as a schlocky celebration of fanboy sexism, at heart the movie is the complete reverse, employing the misogynistic cliches of genre culture as an angry callout of that very sexism.
The troubled women in Sucker Punch are not only imprisoned by patriarchal social structures, but even in their effort to escape into fantasy (and fantasies within fantasy), they are turned into scantily clad dolls enchained by regurgitated masculine daydreams mishmashing the conventions of sci-fi/fantasy films, video games, and comic books. No matter where these women are, they can never be free.
This is very much a fuck you to the way that male artists try to “empower” female characters by imagining them as hypersexualized action heroines. While there absolutely should be more exploration of female sexuality in entertainment, these specific types of presentations are typically for the male gaze, reducing female characters to jerkoff bait under the guise of liberation. Snyder underscores this tendency of genre fare and throws it right back in the (largely male) audience’s faces, pointing out the way nerd culture degrades women and infantilizes men.
Watchmen discusses this as well, albeit more obliquely, but it’s hard to witness Sally being punched and kicked over and over, her face slammed into a pool table, without considering the inherent sexism of the superhero world. There’s no coincidence in the fact that Sally’s dual careers are costumed crimefighter and pinup model: in both, she’s expected to be someone that men can ogle, earning respect through sex appeal.
But not all of the sexuality in Watchmen comes from a dark place, bringing us to what might be the most despised scene in the entire movie.
After deciding to don their old costumes and get a taste of days gone by, retired heroes and ostensible main characters Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl and Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre rescue a large group of people from a tenement fire. In the afterglow of remembering what it’s like to be a superhero, they jump each other’s bones. Graphically. While Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” plays over the soundtrack.
This scene is a lot of things at once. Stupid. Tender. Weird. Stupid. Awkward. Hilarious. Sexy. Did I say stupid?
But it’s supposed to be!
Sex, for all the importance it serves in life, is essentially absurd. Despite how Hollywood movies try to dress it up, in reality it looks ridiculous. And we look ridiculous to those outside of the situation.
Mainstream American cinema really doesn’t know what to do with depictions of sex, a sensitive issue in a culture that would much rather watch violence. We’ve been conditioned by the small handful of ways we see sexual situations presented in entertainment: gentle romance, softcore sultriness, horny comedy, menacing perversion. We rarely see a situation showing two people who just decide “let’s fuck!” and proceed to go at it*. And while most of us don’t end up banging in a floating airship designed to look like an owl, the scene is less removed from reality than what we’re accustomed to seeing.
*James Gunn’s very Watchmen-esque satire Super features a scene quite similar to this in tone, though it differs as it involves an element of questionable consent.
Dan and Laurie’s sky quickie does indeed happen in the comic, but Moore and Gibbons present it as mostly sweet with a little bit of humor. Snyder, meanwhile, fully leans into the awkwardness, exacerbated by a song choice many people now associate with earnest solemnity.
However, this is not the “Hallelujah” of Jeff Buckley or John Cale or Rufus Wainwright or the two thousand other cover versions, some essential and many redundant. It’s also not Cohen’s live, more defeated and somber rendition (the basis for a majority of the covers). This is the original studio recording that appeared on his Various Positions album, the lyrics and delivery very different from how the song is usually arranged today.
Attempts to cover Leonard Cohen tend to stumble because they overlook his self-deprecating sense of humor. This is partly due to the fact that Cohen’s cigarette-scarred, frequently flat basso whisper is so distinct and unique that it can’t be imitated, and some of that very humor is conveyed through the playful intonation in his gravelly voice. But it’s also true that singers will overemphasize the naked honesty and melancholic yearning of the lyrics while losing the literate, observational irony with which Cohen punctuated his work.
The studio version of “Hallelujah” is more or less a song about failing before you’ve even begun, knowing in advance that you’re aiming for the stars and won’t reach them. It tries to commune with the sacred but collapses to the temptation of the profane, and then sometimes even fails at the profane. Cohen sounds amused and confused with a twinge of self-admonishment, choosing to soldier onward despite the sheer absurdity of the endeavor.
This only adds to the comedy of Laurie and Dan’s sex scene. Both the visuals and music seem to be completely serious, when in fact the whole thing is loaded with ironic humor, Laurie accidentally firing the ship’s flamethrower when she reaches orgasm just as the chorus of Cohen’s song hits a crescendo, a sarcastic cliche in a film about subverting cinematic cliches.
(The movie later employs another Cohen track, the thematically appropriate “First We Take Manhattan” accompanying the closing credits. This provides yet another example of Leonard Cohen’s humor, the song’s narrator a self-styled but failed revolutionary with delusions of grandeur, the exact type of perspective Cohen enjoyed exploring when he wanted to satirize his own egomania).
The sex scene is a response to two others which precede it. In the first, Laurie and Dan walk down an alley where they’re confronted by muggers. They defend themselves, pulling out their rusty physical combat skills and dispatching the attackers. Afterwards, both of them are clearly turned on, but they say a forced, overly formal farewell before parting for the night.
Later in the film, Laurie visits Dan at his home, and after one thing leads to another they attempt to finally consummate their lifelong attraction. They fumble around on the couch, elbows getting in the way, Dan too self-conscious and unable to perform. (This may actually be the most realistic sex scene in history). Them fucking in the Owlship is therefore the payoff to both of these scenes; it takes the abandon of putting on a disguise and breaking the law for Dan and Laurie to let go and fully give themselves over to their mutual attraction.
None of that is to subtract from the genuineness of their connection, of course, but it does demonstrate the sexual pathos which fuel the motivations of people who wear costumes and create new identifies to escape themselves.
Despite this, Snyder’s Watchmen has been repeatedly accused of endorsing the concept of the superhero. But far from an act of exaltation, the film offers a blistering indictment.
In a plot deleted from the theatrical version but reinstated for the extended cuts, the character of Hollis Mason — the original Nite Owl and Dan’s hero — is murdered by a gang of street thugs on Halloween. The scene, which cuts back and forth between the elderly Hollis and his remembrances of his costumed days, is both beautiful and devastating.
Later, while interrogating the patrons of a bar, Dan (in his Nite Owl getup) spots a news broadcast announcing Mason’s murder. He flies into a blind rage, attacking a man at the bar who’s dressed similarly to the description of the assailants. Dan — the squeakiest of squeaky clean — punches the man in the face, nearly strangling him to death and threatening to “take out this entire rat hole neighborhood!”
While this moment is rooted in the comic, Snyder makes it way more unsettling, the victim coughing up his own teeth as Dan chokes him.
Nothing about this is depicted as admirable. The scene shows the moment for exactly what it is: someone deciding they have the authority to assault a civilian without evidence or due cause. Though Dan ends up letting him go, it’s only because Rorschach physically pulls Dan away.
The film also deliberately withholds from the audience any type of traditional action film climax or catharsis. After Veidt executes his plan, the characters keep trying to get their big superhero moment by taking Adrian out with a swift punch and a snappy one-liner. They all fail, every single one of them, including Dr. Manhattan.
It ends with Dan flailing around, endlessly punching Adrian in an attempt to instigate a brawl, because Veidt has already succeeded and Dan doesn’t know what else to do. Such theatrics can’t compete with the sheer madness now represented by Ozymandias. If anything, they only add to the problem.
Again and again, the movie demonstrates the questionable motives and behavior of people who put on masks.
In the sequence where Dan and Laurie fight off the would-be muggers, the two of them inflict some seriously gruesome damage, practically tearing the thugs to pieces. The whole business has nothing to do with Laurie and Dan being badass, and everything to do with depicting how even the nicest of costumed vigilantes can be extraordinarily dangerous. (And the resultant sexual tension at the end of the scene highlights how not even Dan and Laurie are immune to the fetishistic nature of being a superhero).
Another scene from the film which has received a fair amount of pushback involves Walter’s stint in jail. Following Rorschach’s arrest, he’s forced to deal with scores of people he’s brutalized during his time as a masked vigilante. Since high-profile prisoners are sometimes hunted for sport, he defends himself in the cafeteria by throwing a vat of scalding hot frying oil in a man’s face, announcing to the stunned crowd of inmates “I’m not locked in here with you . . . YOU’RE LOCKED IN HERE WITH ME.”
In the comic, his pronouncement is mentioned secondhand, but otherwise this moment plays out exactly the same horrific way. Yet for some reason, the movie is accused of implying that Rorschach deserves admiration for his toughness, despite having at no point indicated that Walter is anything other than a deranged murderer with a twisted code of absolutism based solely in his own psychopathy.
All of this comes from the book. It might look a little different, as the graphic novel is a comic from 1985 and the movie is a live action film from 2009, but the upsetting violence and the fetishization of brutality by broken people a big part of what Moore and Gibbons tried to explore.
And while the action sequences can be a bit inflated compared to the comic, that’s standard procedure in adapting a still medium to a live one, and all but one of those action scenes (an Oldboy-style battle through a cell block) is taken from the novel. Similar to Pulp Fiction, often remembered as some type of adrenaline-fueled bloodbath, the majority of Snyder’s Watchmen is simply devoted to people talking.
In the end
The original Watchmen became such a landmark because it deconstructed not only the manner in which superheroes are presented, but also the very nature of comic books, toying with the boundaries of the medium by employing nonlinear storytelling, portions of other pop cultural works (songs, movies, TV shows), additional worldbuilding in the back pages of each issue, and a story within the story which parallels the events of the main narrative.
That meta-text, a grim horror yarn called “Marooned” (featured in the fictional pirate comic Tales of the Black Freighter), was adapted by Snyder as an animated film starring the voices of Gerard Butler and Jared Harris. Only available in the edition known as the Ultimate Cut, the story is interlaced throughout the movie just as in the graphic novel. There is virtually no other film like this version: a 3.5 hour superhero-science fiction-black comedy-character drama-political satire interspersed with a horror/pirate cartoon subplot.
The Black Freighter storyline also restores two of the key background characters from the book, seen only briefly in the theatrical edit: Bernard, a young kid flipping through the pirate comic; and Bernie, the old vendor at whose newsstand Bernard hangs around to read “Marooned” (for free). Right before Adrian unleashes chaos in downtown Manhattan, the two Bernards realize they have the same name. When disaster arrives, they instinctively embrace to shield one another from the blast, dying in each other’s arms.
This moment plays a pivotal role in the emotional landscape of the graphic novel, and while it doesn’t quite reach that level here, it’s nevertheless significant to see it unfold in the movie.
Snyder intended his Watchmen as the cinematic answer to the book, and while it ultimately does not do for genre films what the comic did for its own medium, his effort isn’t necessarily without fruit. (The movie nods to this intention: in the comic, Veidt says he’s “not a Republic serial villain,” changed in the film to “I’m not a comic book villain”).
The visual shoutouts to everything from The Matrix to Apocalypse Now to Batman Forever (Adrian’s costume has nipples) do feel like a deconstruction of genre culture, a movie built on endless references to other works but also breaking the rules of what these films are expected to do. And the addition of the Black Freighter subplot into the narrative acts as a natural extension of the trend of creating animated tie-ins such as The Animatrix. Instead of ancillary narratives, why not incorporate that material as part of the actual movie?
Though the very act of adapting Watchmen to the screen could be interpreted as fan service, the film simply doesn’t offer what superhero and action films are assumed to offer in this day and age. With the proliferation of geek culture into the mainstream — particularly through properties such as Marvel and Star Wars, which have become industry defining — there exists an element of fans expecting entertainment to conform to their desires and demands, and Watchmen sidesteps that expectation by having no qualms when it comes to making the audience deliberately uncomfortable, whether it be Dr. Manhattan’s giant blue dick, an abnormally graphic sex scene, or not holding back in portraying the main characters as rapists, sadists, sociopaths, and fascists.
Love it or hate it, few films such as Watchmen would ever get made by a major Hollywood studio. Not now, and not in 2009. The only reason it went into production at all was due to Snyder’s monumental success with 300, where he briefly had carte blanche as studios tried to mine other graphic novels to churn out similar hits.
Watchmen was trapped in development hell for years, at various points attached to directors including Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky. By the mid-00’s, Warner Bros was leaning towards stripping Watchmen of the political content, satire, and amoral violence, and instead developing the property as a new superhero franchise. Zack Snyder intervened, insisting on making a close adaptation of the comic with a large amount of creative freedom and a de-emphasizing of leaving the door open for sequels. (That he would later spend some years steering the DC Cinematic Universe and trying to do with those films what he’d already achieved with Watchmen is an issue for another day).
The movie was filmed in Vancouver in 2007, for a budget well under the amount typically allotted to a superhero blockbuster. But every dollar made its way onto the screen, from Larry Fong’s beautiful cinematography, to the very convincing CGI Dr. Manhattan, to the pulsing 80s-style score by Tyler Bates (which weirdly anticipates the HBO show’s soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), to the painstaking set design and background details meant to paint a rich, lived-in world.
And the cast is phenomenal: Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Patrick Wilson (Dan), Carla Gugino (Sally), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (believably portraying the Comedian from a young man all the way to old age, in a role which no doubt prepared him for Negan on The Walking Dead).
Billy Crudup delivers an exceptional motion capture performance as Dr. Manhattan, imbuing Jon with many subtle layers in order to convey emotion in a man perceived to be emotionless.
Matthew Goode, though not resembling the novel’s version of Veidt, brings his own nuances to Adrian, including a detail not present in the comic: Adrian speaks with a mildly British-inflected American accent in public and a more apparent German accent in private, quietly showing his ability to deceive and hide certain aspects of himself.
Compared to the others, Malin Akerman’s turn as Laurie Jupiter might feel a bit wooden and less dynamic (something Akerman herself has admitted to, considering this was one of her first major roles). But she still holds her own, adding some meat to the comic’s sometimes flimsy characterization of Laurie, a grown woman unfairly treated like a little girl playing dress up.
All in all, it’s a well-made movie, and probably the best that anyone could have done when it comes to bringing such an unadaptable work to the screen.
In another ten years, will Snyder’s take on Watchmen be held in a different light? Maybe yes, maybe no. But that it’s still such a divisive topic after a full decade confirms one thing: Watchmen is a story meant to do what it’s going to do regardless of whether it pisses people off, and in that, this adaptation more than succeeds.