Watchmen: Style, Substance and Soul

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Adapting a piece of fiction as beloved as Watchmen is a treacherous endeavor for any filmmaker. How does one stay faithful to the source material without aping it entirely? Is it possible to distill a lengthy, multi-tiered story to just a few hours without alienating either long-time fans or mainstream audiences? Will the adaptation stand on its own, or merely act as a supplement to a superior work?

These are all questions that director Zack Snyder (300) faced in helming Watchmen, the anticipated film adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal comic book series-turned graphic novel. Credited as one of the most influential titles in comic book history—and named one of Time magazine’s 100 best English-language novels since 1923—Watchmen has been regarded as unfilmable since its 1986 debut. After a number of attempts over the years, Watchmen is finally upon us. And despite Moore’s notorious disapproval of the project, Snyder has successfully and faithfully brought the iconic story to cinematic life. Hurm indeed.

A deconstruction of superheroes set against the backdrop of impending nuclear war, Watchmen takes place in an alternate timeline where costumed crime-fighters have shaped the 20th century. However, when a 1977 law makes masked vigilantism illegal, most of them are forced to hang up their capes. The film begins in 1985, and the Cold War is quickly heating up. As the Doomsday Clock charting the conflict ticks down to midnight, former crime-fighter Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also known as the Comedian, is thrown out of a high-rise window to his death. His former Watchmen teammate Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) investigates the murder under the suspicion that someone is killing off costumed heroes and sets out to warn colleagues Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) and her lover, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). After a late-night visit by his creepy former partner, Nite Owl, real name Dan Dreiberg, relays the news to Adrien Veidt (Matthew Goode), a man who has used his renown as masked adventurer Ozymandias to become an incredibly successful business man. Who is trying to kill them? What does it all mean?

Fans of the comic book may cringe when they learn that the characters actually refer to themselves as “Watchmen,” thereby eliminating much of the poignancy of that critical label. The phrase “who watches the watchmen”—which appears throughout the comic and film as graffiti scrawled across walls in the background—is originally attributed to Roman poet Juvenal, and is meant to question unchecked authority. Why the group would purposely apply that name to themselves seems a bit odd. Then again, it does sound a lot cooler than “Crimebusters”—the group’s name in the original story—which would probably confuse uninitiated moviegoers.

The group’s name is one change out of many, some of which are far more drastic. Most hardcore fans are already familiar with the Internet outrage over a major alteration to the film’s ending. However, the film doesn’t suffer from those deviations from the original story as much as purists would like them to.

After a well-staged and brutal slugfest between the Comedian and his then-unknown assailant, it’s clear that Snyder has lost none of his action sensibilities honed in his 2007 adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 300. However, it is a beautifully rendered opening credits sequence set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that sets the proper tone. We see a reenactment of the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt V-J Day photograph, with lesbian superheroine Silhouette replacing a sailor in planting a kiss on a nurse in the middle of Times Square. We see Dr. Manhattan shake hands with President John F. Kennedy who, in the next clip, is assassinated by the cigar chomping Comedian. Arguably, this montage is one of the best moments in the film, laying out its backstory in a concise, dramatic and sadly poetic way.

The credit montage acquaints audiences with the film’s stylized look that painstakingly replicates the world of the comic book. Often mimicking Gibbons’ drawings to a tee, the film has an otherworldy look to it that makes the idea of costumed heroes seem tangible. While Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight grounded the Batman mythology to fit into a real-world setting, Snyder has done exactly the opposite and it works. Here, it makes an odd sort of sense that Nite Owl would cruise around Manhattan in an owl-shaped airship, just as seems plausible that a glowing, naked blue man could transport himself to Mars and build a massive palace out of glass. The film visually balances gritty realism and high fantasy, replicating the aesthetic spirit of the book.

Of course, Watchmen is by and large a character piece, and fortunately most of the cast was up to the challenge of fleshing out these troubled crime-fighters. Crudup, from beneath Dr. Manhattan’s computer-generated glow, successfully conveys the character’s detached malaise in losing his connection not only to his lover, but to humanity as a whole. Wilson’s Dreiberg is also detached, forced to hang up his Nite Owl costume despite not really knowing how to move on with his life. Akerman’s Silk Spectre, real name Laurie Jupiter, brings out the character’physical prowess and sensuality—heightened, of course, by her skin-tight latex costume—but always seems to suffer from a tinge of self-doubt, amplified by the lofty expectations set forth by her mother, the previous Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino).

Morgan’s Blake is the unrepentant jerk we all know and hate from the comic, a character that hides his sadism and disdain for humanity behind a Groucho Marx moustache and a yellow smiley-face button. And then there’s Haley’s portrayal of Rorschach, which is simply pitch perfect. From his gruff voice—muffled slightly by his ever-changing inkblot mask—to his slouching posture, Haley owns this role. You just might get chills when he begins reading his first journal entry early on in the film.

Less impressive is Goode’s Veidt, who never emerges convincingly as “the smartest man in the world,” and is sometimes boring. He’s not terrible by any means, but he pales in comparison to his castmates, particularly in the final moments of the film when we need to see Veidt as a calculating mastermind.

As mentioned earlier, the film’s ending is far different from that of the book, which has understandably angered longtime Watchmen fans. Some argue that the altered ending dilutes the entire story, casting a shadow over everything else Snyder accomplishes with the film. While the new ending is hardly as poignant as that of the comic, it doesn’t ruin the film at all. One wonders if it would have been possible to adhere to Moore’s original ending organically while at the same time keeping the film under three hours.

Watchmen is a complex, sophisticated, dense and sometimes staggering piece of fiction, and one must commend Snyder for not only taking up the challenge of transforming it into palatable Hollywood entertainment but for retaining its essence against all odds. It doesn’t replace the experience of cracking the spine of the graphic novel for the first time, but there is a lot to love about this film. Watchmen’s long and arduous trek to the multiplex was hardly in vain. It’s a triumph.

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