Many consider Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1985) to be the Holy Grail of graphic novels. Now, I have not read many comics or graphic novels, but I have read Watchmen and I cannot imagine many other writers have incorporated as much depth, unique characters, and human emotion as Moore did in this story.
When I found out about Zack Snyder’s film adaptation, I went out and bought the graphic novel, eager to experience the source material first.
I was not disappointed.
The graphic novel was nothing like the comics of the past, relaying itself toward more mature sets of eyes. Watchmen is not a children’s comic book, which is what makes it so damn entertaining. Seeing a great novel unfold through images on the page is spectacular. It’s just a shame more writers of this medium do not put the time and effort into creating a work of this caliber.
While many critics are harsh when it comes to Snyder’s adaptation, I feel that he did an amazing job. He took a book that was seemingly unfilmable with its multitude of story lines and characters, and revealed the possibilities of what can be done in movies.
Watchmen tells the story of a group of superheroes who must carry on with their lives after masked avengers are outlawed. Each character has flaws they must either face or embrace. These individuals are what make Watchmen such a grand work. Character driven tales are everything when it comes to storytelling, and this film, and its source material, have plenty of it.
It’s 1985, the Cold War is on, and the nuclear war seems inevitable. The American people are leading unstable and unhappy lives, under the constant threat of the evils coursing through the streets and world. That’s just no way to live.
The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) used to fight back against these evils and enjoyed it, but now believes humanity has doomed itself. Jeffrey Dean Morgan owns this part, and steals every scene he steps into. He was able to walk into this dispirited man’s life, and capture the very essence of the character.
The Comedian may be broken, but so is the world and he cannot fix it. So, he copes, embracing the coming end. Unfortunately, his fall comes sooner than he expects.
His death opens the film and works as the catalyst for the rest of the movie. A noir-like story unfolds with the film’s anti-hero, hard-boiled detective, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), searching for The Comedian’s murderer. Rorschach is the most defective individual in the story, yet also the most admirable – a strange and wonderful combination.
Rorschach has his set of morals and standards and will stick to them no matter what. As the story moves along, we realize he’ll never change. He reminds me of Lieutenant Aldo Raines from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Of all the characters in that epic film, Aldo never deviates from his standards. He’ll carve a swastika in every Nazi forehead he finds, no matter what.
While Jeffrey Dean Morgan may shine in all of his scenes, Jackie Earle Haley shows the world just how talented he is in his portrayal of Rorschach. With his ever-changing white mask relaying a variety of images from Rorschach tests, the mannerism, and raspy voice, Haley commands the world within the film. Snyder may be the director, but, by the end, this turns out to be Haley’s movie.
The most interesting aspect of the graphic novel, as well as the film, is that the work does not stop at being a noir-esque tale.
There’s the story of Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a man trying to change and advance the world for the betterment of mankind. Matthew Goode may have been too young for the role, but that does not prevent him from supplying a stunning performance. Goode hasn’t had the stunning career he deserves, but there’s still time. His character, in the film, is more downplayed in the film than in the graphic novel, making him appear more human. In the graphic novel, Veidt throws his hands in the air in excitement from his successes. In the film, he appears quieter, not knowing what he should do after his triumph. The latter outcome gives the character more depth, and makes him more complicated.
Another storyline is that of Dan Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson), a lonely, lost soul, searching for some meaning and excitement in his life. Missing the glory days when he was the second Night Owl, he spends time every week meeting with his predecessor. Coming in third to Morgan and Haley on my “Best Performances” list is Patrick Wilson. He may not look the way Dan should while in his Night Owl costume, in plain clothes it’s like he’s right off the page. Sure, he looks a little young for the part, but he plays the subtle and humble man quite well.
And while his suit appears flashier than in the graphic novel, he looks all kinds of badass in it, so I can forgive the dissimilarities.
Dan is a man of the past, living in the present. There’s this desire to go back to the old days, when things were somewhat simpler. Dan, Veidt, The Comedian, and Sally Jupiter all felt this way. Rorschach does not seem to fall into this category. Maybe way back in the day he wanted this, but after his actions and misdemeanors, he knew there was no going back.
Laurie Juspeczyk (Malin Akerman) just wants to move forward or out of the life she’s leading. She is the second Silk Spectre, taking after her mother when she retired. Laurie adds love and romance to this collection of stories, between she, Dan and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). A love triangle always makes things more interesting, sure, but to say that is Laurie’s only purpose would be doing a grave disservice to Moore’s work.
Her character also provides the story of a stilted family trying to maintain their lives and relationships in an unfavorable world. Laurie and her mother Sally (Carla Gugino) are not as close as they should be, but they are the only glimpse into family life we see in the movie. They may not get along well, but they try, and what more could we ask for?
Moving back to Dr. Manhattan, originally known as Jon Osterman, we’re given yet another story; that of a “superman.” His situation is very much like other superheroes in comics. Some horrible event occurs, and these individuals end up with powers.
Osterman is literally ripped apart and is able to pull his molecules back together, but with insanely powerful side effects. He has superpowers afterward, making him the only character with superhuman abilities in the story. Osterman had a life, a woman he loved, and a bright future. After the accident, when he is named Dr. Manhattan, he is the future.
But while many characters want to “go back” or get away, I can’t figure out what Manhattan wants. He wants to protect the people he cares about, but his outlook on life is vague and almost irrelevant to him. How is that for a superman? Someone who loses their faith in humanity, and cannot even see people for what they are. Vile and evil at times, yes, but also compassionate and loving.
There are certainly more human emotions than this, but not caring about good and evil, love and hate; that’s not a good thing. Consider the situation in Libya right now. Many American people believe the Libyan’s should deal wit the problem themselves, with the US not getting involved. However, the Libyan leaders idea of dealing with the uprising is to kill all of his people. Someone must do something about that. How could someone who has the ability to help, stand by and do nothing? Dr. Manhattan is getting to that point in Watchmen. Nixon and the Soviets are standing over the nuclear launch button, watching the doomsday clock tick away. Who will stop it? Who will save us?
Snyder took all of these story lines and somehow molded them into a damn good film. It is visually stunning, some shots jumping directly from the pages of Moore’s graphic novel. The structure of the source material is captured fairly well, and stays true to the work as a whole. I highly recommend reading the graphic novel and seeing the film, because it is truly worth it.
This does bring me to a downside of the movie. It will be hard to grasp the back-stories of some of the characters, and what happened to the original “Minutemen” back in the day if you have not read the graphic novel. This supplemental reading is almost required for a great viewing experience, but it should not be this way. Film adaptations should be able to stand on their own.
To give Snyder credit, he attempts to show us much of the information we should know during the incredible intro sequence following The Comedian’s death. It is, by far, one of the greatest things I have ever seen. It, much like the rest of the film, is visually stunning. And don’t get me started on the wide array of fantastic music, which almost seems like another character within the film. With some movies, you watch them and get lost in the work. In Watchmen, and 300 for that matter, you know you’re watching a film. It’s strange because he didn’t use this stylistic way of filming for the fantastic remake of Dawn of the Dead. I guess it’s the fact that the source material for these two latter movies are graphic novels.
Today, Moore’s Watchmen is still increasingly relevant. We live in a world that could destroy itself in well under an hour. How many countries now have nuclear bombs? How many do they have? After seeing the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, tons of American Presidents have called for the removal of nuclear bombs. Many dreamed of a world without these radioactive missiles. Yet, no countries will give up all of them. No one will succumb to peace.
Peace is a luxury we’ll never get to see – it doesn’t generate wealth or power.
Watchmen, the graphic novel, dealt with these issues, yet the film brought the matter to fruition. I prefer the film’s ending to the book’s conclusion, with it being more plausible than the latter. The movie pushed the envelope farther, to where it needed to be. Sitting here now, the part of graphic novel in question reminds me of the end of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull.
Alan Moore’s Watchmen changes everything about comics and graphic novels. When you read this story, you begin to understand you’re looking at a masterpiece. We see the other side of the superhero story, the underbelly. It’s what makes the novel so amazing. Things aren’t so black and white in the world of Watchmen. Good and evil are not so far apart in many of these characters. Their actions will leave you wondering who is right and who is wrong. It may not be as simple as just choosing a side. The great thing is, the novel doesn’t try to answer these questions. Great fiction poses questions and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions. Alan Moore does just that, and then some.
This graphic novel could essentially change a persons opinion on what comics are all about, who they’re for, and whether or not they should be reading them. I’ve read quite a bit of truly great fiction, and Watchmen would be one of the highest works on my list of the best. I’m amazed and envious of Moore for being able to create something so imaginative, sophisticated, and moving. Check out the graphic novel, you’ll regret it if you don’t.
Kudos to the screenwriters who adapted this work, and especially to Zack Snyder for being able shift the pages to the silver screen. There will always be cynics. He stuck too close to the source material or he strayed too far from it. In the end, Snyder did what many would consider impossible. Hell, when I read the novel, I thought: “How can this be done?” Nevertheless, Snyder made the film.
Visually stunning, superbly acted, and well written (due in large part to Alan Moore, even though he wanted nothing to do with the film), Watchmen dazzles on the screen and unveils Zack Snyder’s uncanny ability to create just about anything for cinemas everywhere.
4 out of 5 skin-tight leather suits