Mar 16 2009 6:54pm

Watching the Watchmen

I had heard enough reviews panning Watchmen that I was prepared to come out thinking it was a well-meaning misfire, an interesting failure. And I’d talked enough about it to start to turn off my wife–who had never read it (or very many comics in general) and wasn’t front-loaded to get it if the narrative didn’t hold up as a film in it’s own right.

I still wanted to see it, regardless.  How could I not? The original comic was too personally relevant to my own childhood to do otherwise.

Then I noticed something.

With the exception of Roger Ebert (who for all that he sometimes gets it wrong is one of us), all the naysayers were critics. Whereas a handful of writers I respect and read were chiming in positively. Authors as diverse Samuel R. Delany, John Scalzi, Mark Chadbourn and Paul Cornell—spanning generations, styles, and media but all high in my estimation—were reporting back favorably.

I began to suspect that those negative responses were from critics used to less-nuanced, more straightforward Hollywood fare, narratives stripped down to the fast-paced formula where one protagonist identified his/her goal by the eleven minute mark and then raced towards it across the next two hours, who weren’t used to having to hear and comprehend so much dialogue, who weren’t used to having to juxtapose word and image in order to extract theme.

And you know what?

I was right.

Watchmen is awesome!

I think it may be a “writers movie,” but for this child of ’70s cinema, that lost era in which you could honestly say film was an art form on a par with the novel, in which you could discuss what a film “means” and not just how it looks, Watchmen was my kind of film. Watchmen is perfectly cast, beautifully shot, lovingly realized. I understand the reasons for Alan Moore’s feelings about Hollywood in general and comic book films in specific, but if every director was this respectful towards his source material, we’d have a new golden age of film. Every writer should be so lucky to have his/her work treated with such loving respect and admiration. And if there are a few differences from the graphic novel, my god they are minor!

And my wife, who saw it without the comic book background? She thought it was very good (if a bit bloody). Perhaps not as complicated as The Dark Knight plot-wise, but rich in character and overall very worthwhile.

For my part, I have no complaints at all. I was struck by how much of the juxtapositions of words and images they were able to preserve, and thought it found a whole other level of meaning/nuance unavailable to the comic in the use of period music. I had been worried by the heavy-handed Matrix-style of the prison break clip, for fear that was indicative of the whole, and ended up LOVING its use in the film as representative of the return of Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl’s confidence and libido! (Again, another instance where music and montage are used to add a level of nuance.)

Were there some changes to the graphic novel? Of course. Listen, I once sat in a writer/producer’s office with a script of Watchmen in my hands that ended with them all racing into a burning building to save the day and be proclaimed as heroes again. And Snyder himself talks about how hard he fought to keep the downer ending intact. Wil Wheaton’s take, that this is essentially the best Watchmen we could hope for and then some, is spot on. Anyone who nitpicks the minor alterations is being obsessive. Really, it’s a shame that Moore won’t ever see this, because if this had been the first adaptation of his work, he might have a different opinion of Hollywood (and Hollywood itself, by the way, seems to be more open to faithful adaptations of books/comics content than ever before in its entire history, may this trend continue.)

Meanwhile,  all those proclamations that Watchmen  is “unfilmable” are getting my back up. I’ve got a lot to say about trying to make an ambitious film and not pleasing everyone verses shooting for the LCD and staying comfortable. Even if Watchmen were an “interesting failure” I’d have been pleased, but I pronounce it a very interesting success. I’d rather have a few more Zack Snyders out there attempting to make ambitious, intelligent films and falling short than an hundred more Michael Bays pumping out Transformer sequels. During the previews, they showed clips of Dennis Quaid’s new film, Pandorum, and I thought, “Oh god, not another retread of Alien!” Why is Hollywood stuck on a film that was made in 1979? Please, new material, new looks, new ideas, new types of storytelling, new visuals! I don’t need to see Alien, Blade Runner or 2001 ripped off yet again. If I want that, I’ll watch the originals (or the lamentable Event Horizon for a mash-up of at least two of the three). When I go see something new, I want something, well, new. Give me ambitious filmmakers who dare to film the “unfilmable” (whatever that means) rather than the safe betters who shoot the tried-a-hundred-times-and-true formula films.

It may be a little evil to quote Moore’s own words in this context, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of when he said:

It is much more exciting and thus creatively energizing if you are attempting something where you are uncertain of its outcome, where you don’t know if it will work or not. And this is only the beginning. Eventually, increasingly confident of your talents to make a workable story out of most anything, you will come to regard being merely unsure of a work’s outcome as far too facile an approach. Instead, you may graduate to only attempting works which you privately suspect to be impossible. This is no bad thing, and if rigorously applied would weed out a great many dull and repetitive creators from the world while at the same time increasing the world’s relatively meager cache of genuine unexpected marvels.1

Okay, that’s a little low. Perhaps it would be kinder, and more apropos, to end on a quote from John F. Kennedy, given the frequent use of images of JFK in Snyder’s film:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. 2

I am supposing by “do the other things” he meant film the Watchmen. And I’m glad somebody listened.

1This is from his afterword to the 2003 edition of his Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics, originally written in 1985 and reprinted in 2003 by Avatar Press.

2“Speech at Rice University”, Houston, Texas, September 12th, 1962.

Bridget McGovern
1. BMcGovern
Well said! I really think you're onto something by labeling the film a "writers' movie"...the way the narrative is woven together through word and image, and the consistently high attention to detail throughout the film reveal a level of craft it's hard not to admire. I may not necessarily love every decision Snyder made in translating the comic to the screen, but I can see exactly why those decisions were made, and how well everything fits together in the end. To me, there's something profoundly satisfying about Watchmen that transcends the urge to nitpick, and it has everything to do with its success in telling a highly complex story in a clear, faithful, even elegant way.
Lou Anders
2. LouAnders
Again, I think given where some of the earlier attempts at translating this film to the screen were headed, it's a miracle, and a pity Moore can't see the difference between this and League of Extraordinary Gentleman, because there IS a difference.
3. m.psychosis
YES, I was so glad to read this. I really enjoyed the film, and after all the bad reviews, I thought I must only like it b/c I had no relationship to the comic first. Since seeing it, I've read it, and though I think there are a few justifiable criticisms of the film (why use the panels as a story board so effectively but change some of the costumes??), ultimately I'm impressed that the film stayed as true to the book as it does, and that all involved were willing to release such a dark "blockbuster." I do think if I'd read it first I'd have had a harder time with the only major divergence in the climax.
As to Moore, it was my understanding that his refusal to be involved with/ever see the film stemmed from his disagreement over the rights to the characters w/ DC rather than any particular beef w/ Snyder's interpretation, but I have no doubt that others are better informed than I on that matter.
Lou Anders
4. LouAnders
Thank you! I've since talked to more people who never read it but enjoyed it, as well as more SF&F writers who did read it and loved the film.

Moore hates Hollywood and DC both (with good reason), so his disagreements predate this film either way.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
Moore has a long-standing (although I believe now somewhat lessened, since he does work with the Big Two these days) issue with DC regarding creators' rights and merchandising in general—hence part of his utter disdain to any derivative works from his comics, and yes, the abomination that is LXG did not help—but the characters from Watchmen were never his, nor are they his creation. They are based loosely on characters acquired from Charlton Comics by DC in the early 1980's. The whole history is actually very interesting, and worth a Wikipedia clicktrance or two.
Luke M
6. lmelior
I'd never read the comic and I enjoyed the movie. I just have a few criticisms (beware of spoilers!):

******** WARNING: Spoiler Section ********

First of all, I don't get the whole Comedian-as-dad storyline. It really doesn't have any effect on the plot except for Silk Spectre realizing, oh the bad guy killed my father. It doesn't change the story at all.

Second, I don't buy Dr. Manhattan's conclusion about miracles at the end. It's kind of a sappy, self-important cop-out, just like the concept of soul mates. Sure, there's a one-in-a-billion shot that one particular sperm fertilizes one particular egg, but every combination has those same odds. Just like the lottery. It either happens or it doesn't - that's nature, not a miracle. And as smart as he is supposed to be, it should be pretty obvious to Dr. Manhattan. Disappointing.

Third, I don't consider myself a prude or anything, but I thought the sex scene was less than tastefully done. Now that I'm more mature, married with a child (no more OMG! BEWBS!), I find extended sex scenes more jarring to my suspension of disbelief. There aren't many plot revelations to be found in rhythmic hip thrusts and moans of pleasure.

The downer of an ending was great, though I didn't think it was necessary for Dr. Manhattan to kill who he killed. Who would believe him anyway? Still, I found it very refreshing to see a blockbuster go against the grain.

******** End of Spoiler Section ********
Pablo Defendini
7. pablodefendini
Everything you're criticizing is actually very nicely addressed in the comic—you might want to give it a look.

Everything except that damn sex scene...that was quite cringe-worthy.
Josh Kidd
8. joshkidd
Watchmen the book took superheroes and made us wonder what it would be like if real people put on costumes and went out into the streets fighting crime. It took superheroes and made them human. The movie turned them back into superheroes again.

This is not to say that the movie was awful. It was better than I expected it to be. But, it misses pretty widely what the book was. I say this as a fan and not as a critic.

The characters in Watchmen the movie are all superhuman, just look at the fight scenes. When Snyder chooses to include those moments in the book where the characters display superhuman abilities, those moments lose their impact.

I could say more specifically, but I don't want to load up on spoilers.
9. behold the destroyer
I have to strongly disagree with you as someone who has had a long relationship with the comic & enjoys a fair bit of film (but is far from obsessive). The real problem I have with Snyder's adaptation is that while it looks like Watchmen and sounds like Watchmen its kinda falls into the uncanny valley of film adaptation. I wholeheartedly reject "this is the best we could ever hope for argument" as being the cries of those who've accepted the ghettoization of comics.
Snyder's adaptation really missed the heart of the book in attempting to copy it so much, and thoroughly misused the medium of film. A prime example of this too me would be the coloring of the movie. The book is colored in secondary hues to denote a dirtier, slightly more real environment than the bright primary palette of most comics. Instead of taking that idea and making the film looks more realistic and dirty Snyder uses the SAME coloring in the movie and ends up with this surreal purple hue over things that makes the whole thing feel like a staged play. Purple may equal real in comics, but it doesn't in film. This is far from my biggest gripe, but it succinctly shows how Snyder missed the intention of the work in trying so hard to ape the book.
james loyd
10. gaijin
"Anyone who nitpicks the minor alterations is being obsessive."
Minor? Um, the climax of the story, the point to which it has all been building is minor? I see, so if at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Luke discovered that Obi Wan was his father, that would be a minor alteration? Sorry, just being an obsessive nitpicker. I liked the film, but a different ending does change the story entirely.
Jeff Hentosz
11. Hentosz
Jeff Goldsmith of Creative Screenwriting magazine offers an exhaustive, nearly two-hour MP3 podcast interview with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse here. Plot and character changes are addressed, as is Alan Moore's opinion of the effort (spoiler: he kind-of approves). I made an unnecessary trip to the grocery just to finish listening to it yesterday. Enjoy.
Jeffrey Richard
12. neutronjockey
I thought the opening credits sequence was brilliantly done, both artistically as well as explaining the mythos of Watchmen. I would love to have seen an entire film done played out in a similar fashion to the opening credits.

Just please, please don't take your kudos to the couple who brought their 8-10 yr old daughter to the matinee showing I saw. Zero kudos. Negative kudos.
Lou Anders
13. LouAnders
@Hentosz - thanks for the link. Downloading to iTunes now!
@neutronjockey - I agree wholeheartedly re: kids. Appalled to hear there were little kids at showings several friends of mine attended.
14. cmpalmer
For the record, I thought it was awesome as well. Nothing you can do about mainstream critics, but its a shame that the fan base criticized it so much.
Lou Anders
15. LouAnders
@cmpalmer - it's an interesting mix of critics faulting it for not straying from the source material and fans criticizing it for straying too much. I thought it was wonderfully faithful while addressing the separate needs of film. I am eager to see the promised 4 hour version on DVD though, and wonder if that won't move it a step closer to the comics. I'm still marveling at the casting too.
Troy Lissoway
16. Troylis
joshkidd@8"It took superheroes and made them human. The movie turned them back into superheroes again. "

I had no problem with that. The point of the book wasn't superheroes in the real world--if it was, there would be no Dr. Manhattan, no Owlship, no psychics and no bullet-catching. The idea was to take the superhero archetypes and make them fallible--make them real people by virtue of their characters, not by de-powering them.

The movie does the same, but with the archetype of the cinema superhero. The archetype that can perform wire-fu and take on a crowd of enemies who all wait their turn to attack. The tropes of comic books and film overlap quite a bit, but I think there are some moments where the movie draws on specifically cinematic references, which are more important for it to function as a stand-alone film (and my wonderful wife, who went into the film with no knowledge of the comic, did think it was a great stand-alone film).
Lou Anders
17. LouAnders
@Troylis I think there are some moments where the movie draws on specifically cinematic references, which are more important for it to function as a stand-alone film (and my wonderful wife, who went into the film with no knowledge of the comic, did think it was a great stand-alone film).

Well said! You've articulated something I was trying to express about film-specific nuances.
18. Raycun
Troylis - The idea was to take the superhero archetypes and make them fallible

No, it was to show what superheros would really be like, if they existed. If Superman actually existed, he'd be more like Manhattan than a boy scout. If people did actually dress up in silly costumes to fight crime, they'd do it because there was something wrong with them, not because they were 'heroic'.
I liked a lot of things about the movie, but I think Moore would hate it for this change. He has said about The Killing Joke that, looking back, it's disappointing because all it says in the end is that two inhuman psychopaths are similar in some ways, and that's hardly a revelation.
Watchmen-the-movie was about larger-than-life 'characters', Watchmen-the-book tried to be about real people. Maybe the movie is the best you can get, maybe a big budget superhero movie has to make those compromises with audience expectations - but that's an argument for not making the movie, support for Moore's position. 'Best possible' does not always mean 'good'.
Troy Lissoway
19. Troylis
I think the idea that the characters in Watchmen were normal except for dressing up to fight crime shows how the comics medium has it's own tropes that the reader buys into. The costumed adventurers in Watchmen are not any more real-life than the movie characters are-- they are "normal" only in a comic-book context.

In his book Becoming Batman, Paul Zehr looks at the physical requirements of putting on a costume to fight crime, extrapolating from real-world athletes and martial artists. He estimates that the training required to NON-LETHALLY defend yourself, especially against multiple opponents, and never lose (because your opponents are willing to kill you) would take about 15-18 years. He then looks to prize-fighters and NFL players and sets a reasonable career length of about 3 years before accumulated injuries and luck either force retirement or lead to death.

In the comic, we accept that all of the adventurers--from Hollis Mason, Eddie Blake and Sally Jupiter all the way up to Dan Dreiberg and Walter Kovacs--have spent part or all of their careers fighting crime non-lethally as unarmed vigilantes. Laurie Jupiter does so as a 16-yr-old. As far as I can recall, only one mask (Dollar Bill) dies in action, and that's because his cape gets caught in a door.

That's not what it "would really be like." If it was, we could reasonably expect to see "lone vigilante" action in our real world. But the Watchmen comic doesn't worry about the real world. It operates in the world of the comic book, where (as in the movie) Dan and Laurie can be outnumbered 5-1 by a street gang with weapons, and yet defeat them all without being injured. Or where the Comedian, outfitted as a psychotic SWAT officer, can drop into a riot by himself and hold his own. Or where Rorschach can walk unarmed into a bar--hell, a PRISON even--filled with hostiles and cow them into submission. Or where Dan can design and hand-build Archie. Each one of those things is fantastical, and we haven't even touched on Adrian yet.

Yet, it all FEELS like the real world, because comic books train us to expect things that are even more fantastic. The "normal" characters of the comic still hew to the "Batman" archetype, even if they don't have powers. The "normals" of the movie hew to the "superhero movie" archetype (including the latest Batman films) without needing a supernatural basis for what they do.

For their medium, the movie characters are as "normal", and certainly as flawed, as the characters in the comic. Now whether that makes for a good movie is up to the viewer.
20. Raycun
I think the reader understands that the masks in Watchmen were not Batman, and were not meant to be. They didn't get into fights where they were unarmed and outnumbered 5 to 1. How many fights did they even get into?
Hollis Mason - impossible to know how often he actually fought more than one or two people, or how often he was alone (and not supported by other masks, or the police).
Eddie Blake - not unarmed, not concerned about keeping people alive. He can drop into a riot because he has a rifle in his hand and a gunship behind him.
Sally Jupiter - did she actually fight anyone, ever?
Laurie Juspeczyk - goes on patrol with Dr Manhattan, for pete's sake.
Dan Dreiberg - not unarmed
(Later Laurie and Dan take on 3 or 4 muggers in an alley, which is believable for people who have had training against opponents not expecting a fight. They're still gasping for breath afterwards. IIRC, that's the only fighting Laurie does in the comic.)
Adrian Veidt - Adrian _is_ the guy who trains for 15 years, and is in peak condition, that's the Veidt method, that's the point of the character. How long was his career of getting into fights? We can't know, but quite possibly it was short.
Rorschach - yes, Kovacs is an outlier. But it's clear that what makes him so scary is his psychopathy. As a kid he beat up an older kid by jamming a cigarette in his eye, and that's how he continues to win fights when he's older. Most people hesitate, he doesn't. (And he doesn't cow the prison into submission, several people try to kill him)
Troy Lissoway
21. Troylis
Ha--that's what I get for trying to develop an argument when my copies of the comic have been boxed up for years :)

I agree that I exaggerated the exploits of Dan and Laurie, and the effect Rorschach had on the prison. On the other hand, Comedian's early career consisted of sneaking around the docks beating the crap out of people, so he wasn't always armed, and I don't recall Nite Owl II carrying anything he could use in a fight (although he certainly may have at some point in his career.)

I also agree that Moore was trying to write realistic, human characters. I just think that those characters are still operating by the rules of a comic book. There are a number of points where the reader willingly suspends their disbelief in order to enjoy the story. The comic book format sets up certain expectations in the reader--the genius of Watchmen is the way Moore and Gibbons play with those expectations.

So, we accept that no gang of bank robbers ever managed to shoot Hollis Mason; that Dan Dreiberg is a Renaissance-man engineer/academic/crimefighter who can create his own advanced aircraft and arsenal of gadgetry; that no-one ever discovered their secret identities; that costumed villains arose who were happy to essentially role-play superhero action with our protagonists. These are all the tiny things that make up a comic-book world, that you don't have to explain--even if the rationalizations would be credible--because it's already part of the shorthand.

Likewise, the world of the movie has it's own expectations and shorthand. By playing into a number of these tropes, the film is able to set up the expectations that will be subverted later. This does mean making the characters more "super," as joshkidd pointed out. But I still think that the point of the comics wasn't putting the comic heroes into "the real world," it was creating a comic-book world with more realistic people. I thought the movie managed to do the same thing, but you can't accomplish that by leaving the "superhero movie" tropes behind, otherwise you get something closer to Hero at Large.

By the way, I'm enjoying this discussion--that's likely why I'm being so verbose. Please let me know what I should backpedal on for my next comment :)
22. Raycun
(Great, long post went missing. Sorry, but you'll just have to get the highlights...)

By making the characters, especially Dan Dreiberg (in many ways the viewpoint character for the reader) more than human, the film-makers remove our stake in their decisions. 'Staying silent to save the world' is no longer a choice made by some paunchy shmoe who doesn't know what's happening in his life - it's another CRISIS for NIGHT OWL!?!!!1!

Also, while in many ways the film is all about the violence, with fight scenes full of blood and broken bones bursting through skin, when it comes to the massacre of ten million New Yorkers the blood disappears. The innocent bystanders are cleanly vaporised. In the book, the innocent bystanders have names that we know, and their blood is all over the streets. (This is also true of screen time. Slow-mo fight scenes in the movie vs brief panels in the comics, New York gets a minute on screen, but pages and pages in the comic)

That didn't turn out to be so short after all...
23. Raycun
Oh yes, another point I made in the missing post - Moore is clever in choosing what to show us. We don't see masks taking on lots of armed people, or Dreiberg making Archie. The things that would break suspension of disbelief that these are normal people happen, if at all, off-screen.
Troy Lissoway
24. Troylis
Sorry about your missing long post. That's really frustrating. My posts would be shorter, but I'm at work and don't have time to write concisely :)

I agree with you about the ending. I have no problem with the mechanics of it, but it should have been more shocking than the violence up to that point. Perhaps cut the gratuitous footage of viscera stuck to the nightclub ceiling and show some consequences in New York.Taking away the human carnage made Adrian's actions seem even more clinical than in the book. My wife was wondering why Dr. Manhattan exploded people when he could just make them not exist anymore. The exploding thing would have made more sense as foreshadowing. Unfortunately, the one part of the film that's supposed to be gruesome gets sanitized.

However, I disagree with your point about Dan (surprise). In the movie, Dan is still a shmoe who doesn't know what's going on in his life, until (as in the comic) he returns to being Nite Owl. But even as Nite Owl, he has a very narrow realm of effectiveness. He can beat people up and fly around in his Owlship. He's completely ineffective against Veidt. Part of the climax of the movie is Dan and Walter standing there in their silly costumes realizing there's nothing they can do. Nite Owl and Rorschach may be good at kicking the crap out of people, but Adrian and Jon are honest-to-god superbeings.

As for unbelievable stuff happening offscreen, Moore doesn't have to consider showing us that because we already know that that stuff happens in comic books all the time. Moore only has to write scenes that show us how his world is different from other comics. He has to explain that the heroes don't have powers and that the advanced technology all comes from Dr. Manhattan. Otherwise, he's free to use any comic book convention he wants in order to move his story along, such as psychics.

Film isn't as dominated by a single genre as comic books are, so if you're doing a deconstruction of a superhero story, you have to explicitly call out which genre you're working in. I think the "superhero" action scenes work because they link the film to the recent comic-book blockbusters. But in the context of those movies, Dan, Laurie and Walter still aren't superhuman. Now, they're not "normal" normal, but they are "Jet Li" normal. And while that may make for over-the-top fight scenes, it still leaves them powerless in the face of a real catastrophe.

Now I better stop rambling and get to work…

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