Watchmen: Who’s Watching?

Jackie Earl Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Akerman, Patrick Wilson

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Watchman fan. The graphic novel was put in my hands a couple of years ago and I enjoyed it very much. The book resonates with people, and is deservedly the ultimate example of graphic novel as legitimate literature. But that’s as far as I go with the Watchmen.

I say that because a large part of the backlash the film received upon release stemmed from differences in the adaptation. Of course, “the book is always better, blah, blah, blah.” There will always be those people. And when they’re comic book nerds, it’s an uphill battle with a tornado at the top. Just look at Ben Affleck. The Middle East is exploding and everyone’s mad about Batman. Anyway, I’d like to think I’m about as neutral a party as one can get with regards to reviewing the film. I’m initiated, but not fanatic. So let’s go.

If you haven’t seen it, Watchman is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. It centers around a group of former “masked heroes” in an alternate 1985. The Cold War rages on; the world waits with baited breath as the nuclear clock counts the minutes to midnight. It’s complicated, visually spectacular and populated with conflicted heroes dealing with irrelevancy, old age, abandonment, and weakness in the face of global destruction.

One the perennial criticisms of the comic is that it was considered almost “unfilmable.” Admittedly, the book is non-linear, covering two generations of heroes, and peppered with various interludes (and a comic-within-a-comic) that would probably break any sort of thematic momentum in a movie. But director Zack Snyder wisely condenses the Watchmen’s early adventures and history into the opening credits. It’s important to show that these people have been molded by and live in this world. In the case of Dr. Manhattan of course, the world has bent to his influence. But it’s not an origin story, thankfully. More than the book, which is written as much more of an epic, the film feels appropriately like the coda to these people’s lives. They lived; their parents and mentors lived. They were done with this sort of thing. The film captures that reluctance well, particularly in the relationship with Nite Owl and Rorschach.

Rorschach is front and center here, a ruthlessly principled vigilante hellbent on discovering who’s been murdering costumed heroes. Played by Jackie Earl Haley, he’s the best part of the film and is pitch perfect as the sociopath antihero. Rorschach has lived on the street for years, cultivating a sharp misanthropy and bitterness toward his former crime-fighting partners, whom he believes have abandoned him by giving up their capes. He shows up from time to time to steal food and act ornery. After Nite Owl and Silk Spectre rekindle an old flame and get a taste for the violent fun they used to enjoy, they spring Rorschach from prison and bring him back to Nite Owl’s lair. The two men’s subsequent butting of heads is my favorite scene because both men eventually come to understand each other and form a friendship. Nite Owl realizes the loneliness that Rorschach must have been bottling up and Rorschach accepts that despite his moral resolution, it’s necessary to forgive in order to repair relationships. It’s a good moment.

Now, this wouldn’t be a Watchmen review without some discussion of the ending. If you haven’t seen it, there will be SPOILERS to follow. You’ve been warned.

In the comic, the world comes together to fight the universal threat of alien invasion as a way to end the escalating global conflict. A giant alien squid is dropped into the middle of New York and rampages through the city. Ozymandias, pulling the strings, aims to end the Cold War by forcing the superpowers to put aside their differences and battle the alien menace. The reasoning being that an extraterrestrial threat is apolitical and therefore humanity’s obligation. It’s always struck me as a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s clever, but to my knowledge the squid idea was never strongly foreshadowed in the rest of the book. The film’s approach was much simpler and more in line with the universe. The world of course feared Dr. Manhattan, the god-like being able to affect matter and time at his will. The Cold War stuck around largely because of the world’s trepidation of his being used as a weapon of American hegemony. It makes more sense then to illustrate Dr. Manhattan as the lightning rod he is and rally the world against him than it does to distract by introducing an outside threat. The film makes very clear that his continued presence is the reason for the crescendoing global panic. It keeps the story simpler and more self-contained, which works to it’s advantage.

It is interesting though, why Zack Snyder would choose to do it. Otherwise, the film is a carbon copy of the book. As I understand it, he used much of the comic’s panels to frame his shots. It certainly mirrors the lovely color palette and art direction. Again, Rorschach looks lifted from the page. So with such singular dedication to detail and tonal preservation, it seems odd to jettison the ending. It nevertheless works better.

So watch the Watchmen. It’s fun, entertaining, and probably the best it’s going to be. Which is to say that it’s very good, all things considered. As a lesson in boiling down a book to fit a movie that works, it should be taught in film school.

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