Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ self-contained twelve-issue comic Watchmen was released by DC Comics in 1986-1987, though it takes place in a completely separate fictional universe from their mainline characters. It’s been pretty universally praised since its release, but was considered “unfilmable” for a long time, having been so described both by its writer Alan Moore and by putative director Terry Gilliam.
So it proved through a long series of failed attempts to make a film version. But it was finally done in 2009, in a film directed by Zack Snyder and featuring a mostly unknown cast — an excellent decision to my mind. The last thing we needed was be constantly thinking “Oh, look, Johnny Depp” when we should be seeing The Comedian.
I saw the film in the cinema when it came out, and came away with very mixed emotions. In many respects it was brilliant. It’s been criticised in some quarters for excessive reverence to the text, but I feel it walked a very good line between retaining what was so great about the comic while representing it with the very different vocabulary of film.
Back then, my biggest problem with the film — one I still feel deeply — is the excessive and graphic violence. There are several sequences showing things that simply should not be on the screen, and none of them contributes anything to the substance of the film. It’s gratuitous. Here’s what I wrote at the time (lightly edited to depend less on the conversational context):
… So judged on technical and indeed artistic merits, I think it is by far the best of the last decade’s superhero movies — which makes it the best ever, since there was basically nothing before the current crop.
So everything is good, right?
Well, no. Although I admired Watchmen enormously from beginning to end and enjoyed some parts immensely, too much of it was just plain nasty. It worries me that things which it would have been absolutely impossible to show on cinema screen when I was growing up (like the prisoner’s hands being cut off with a circular saw) are now routine, and even considered “cool”. It worries me that, by watching such films, I am complicit in that change. Many things that a comic can skim lightly over or leave implied or only vaguely sketched necessarily become much more graphic in a film, and I don’t think I buy the reading that this is a deliberate manoeuvre to make us dislike the violence as we ought.
All of this leaves me still glad to have seen Watchmen, but with no desire to see it again and a great relief that I didn’t take Fiona. It’s also left me with a resolution not to watch any more 18 films. I think that anything our culture says a 17-year-old shouldn’t see is not something that is going to do me good. I’m not saying that would be the right thing for everyone, but for me it is.
And yet here I am, eight years later, having watched it again — and not only that, but the Ultimate Cut. Why? Because the story is so very compelling, I guess. Having re-read the comics, I wanted to see once more what the film had done with them.
And what it had done was mostly very good. I stand by my comments on the graphic violence, which is even nastier in the Ultimate Cut — or at least, there are more very nasty moments. But leaving that aside, the adaptation is very strong. I love, for example, how the visuals of the 1930s/40s Minutemen group capture their amateurism:
The publicity photo the group had done shows up how silly their costumes are, and how poorly fitted in some cases; and it appears to have been taken in some random office space. This is absolutely as it should be, since Watchmen is is the story of (with one exception) resolutely ordinary people playing at being superheroes.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the 1960s Crimebusters group — renamed The Watchmen, understandably — really do appear super-powered. They are all stronger, tougher and faster than any real human can be, and that seems like a catastrophic misjudgement. It’s also at odds with, for example, Nite Owl’s noticeable middle-age spread, which is taken directly from the comics. It simply makes no sense that a decade after retiring and having visibly let himself go, he should still be capable of fighting his way through a horde of crazed convicts. And that Laurie Juspeczyk, in her high heels, should be capable of such feats is simply silly.
I’m at a loss to understand why this was done, unless it was in the hope of selling Watchmen as a regular superhero film. But it isn’t one, and could never have been one. After the graphic violence, it’s the film’s greatest artistic misstep.
The one super-powered character is of course Dr. Manhattan, and his sequences are beautifully realised. The crystal fortress that he creates on Mars …
… looks very different in the film …
… but has very much the same character. It’s worth watching the short sequence that shows its creation, or perhaps birth would be a better word for it. It does a fine job of conveying both Dr. M’s limitless power and his increasing distance from humanity.
As in the comics, the heart of the story is conceptual. But where it touches on human relationships, the most interesting are the Jon-Laurie, Laurie-Dan and Dan-Rorschach chain, and all three of these are portrayed convincingly. Where the film scores highly is in being, and I know this sounds a bit silly, realistic: given that such characters existed, their relationships really would be very much like the way they are portrayed. (I once made the same observation about Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
The big difference between the previous Director’s Cut of Watchmen and the Ultimate Cut that I watched is that the latter has the animated version of the in-universe comic Tales of the Black Freighter re-inserted, in half a dozen shortish chunks. A lot of people were unhappy about this being omitted from the theatrical film, but I have to admit that I don’t see how it adds much. I found myself waiting impatiently through the animated Black Freighter segments, waiting to get back to the main story. But I feel pretty much the same way about the Black Freighter segments in the comics, so maybe the problem isn’t how they were executed in the film. Others’ mileage may vary, but I am inclined to think I would have enjoyed the regular Director’s Cut more. (And for what it’s worth, director Zack Snyder agrees.)
Oh, and the changed ending, without the squid? I am all for it. It’s more elegant, economical and direct than Moore’s version. I will say no more, for fear of spoilers, but the change seems to me more than defensible.
In the end, I am left ambivalent about the Watchmen movie, as I was the first time I saw it. It is a fascinating film, and one very well worth seeing if you can cope with the violence. And yet, it fails to capture the full power of the comics — which hardly seem a fair criticism, given their iconic status. I think Snyder’s film is about the best Watchmen movie there could be; but it’s perhaps still not really good enough.
So I think it was a mistake to make the film; but I am glad they did.
Want to read more about Watchmen?
- Andrew Hickey’s very abstract thoughts on the idea of the film, written before it actually came out: Adaptation and algorithmic complexity
- Matt Wedel’s extremely positive take on the film, with good comments on the changed ending: Dr Vector spoils Watchmen
- Gavin Burrows’ typically insightful analysis: WATCHMEN (THE MOVIE)
- Finally, Andrew Rilstone’s Who Sent the Sentinels? (You have to buy this, I believe. But it’s the best thing I’ve ever read about Watchmen, and contains the observation that Watchmen “contains the seeds of its own deconstruction”.)
And to finish, a palate cleanser: if you’ve ever read the original comics, please take a minute and 21 seconds to watch Saturday Morning Watchmen. You will thank me.