With Marvel Studios breaking records with Avengers: Endgame (2019) at the box office (yet again), it would be hard to argue movies based on comic book properties are having anything other than a victory lap. What was once a niche genre filled with embarrassing missteps, the box office and critical bomb of a comic book movie is now the exception rather than the rule. Even the DC cinematic universe is starting to get its act together and putting together solid superhero films like the recent Shazam! (2019). It’s at a crucial time like this you need to take a minute to appreciate just how far things have really come.
Marvel’s domination at the cineplex has been established through their recipe of safe and enjoyable, though predictable movies that make it all but impossible for some of the more darker comic book adaptations to flourish. Not that there aren’t plenty of movies that have their roots in comics, but the period when the emphasis on adapting more brainy, ambitious graphic novels (and an accompanying R rating) around the mid to late aughts bears little resemblance to today when Robert Downey Jr. snarks his way to the GDP of a small country in the latest PG-13 blockbuster.
Watchmen (2009), directed by Zack Snyder, might have been the peak of this era. An adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that had been stuck in pre-production hell for decades before it debuted to divided opinion and maybe not as good of a box office haul when compared to other big comic book movies. For having not met such lofty expectations, it was considered something of a flop, but it didn’t stop Snyder from becoming the chief visionary of the DCEU later on.
Much of the blame has been placed on Snyder’s style-over-substance approach, the grimdark tone, and the slavish devotion to the source material. Adding further insult, Alan Moore, being the prickly genius that he is, dismissed the adaptation before giving it a chance after seeing Hollywood mishandle his material multiple times before.
It’s easy to see why adapting the story of Watchmen was such an ordeal. The plot deals with a fully-realized alternate history in which superheroes have existed and affected the balance of power. Now outlawed, a group of former vigilantes are drawn back together in a murder plot of one of their own while the doomsday clock ticks away as the United States and Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear warfare. Since its publication in 1985, Watchmen has become the benchmark with which all other graphic novels and comic books are judged.
Dealing with more mature themes than any other comic book than before, Watchmen created an expansive alternate history filled with richly-detailed settings and characters in an intricate plot that spanned decades and features a cast of broken, morally-questionable superheroes that begged the question if their brand of justice actually makes the world worse off than it would have been without them. It’s a world that would have been challenging for anyone, and perhaps the biggest question that faced the film version was could anybody, Snyder or any other living director, have possibly pulled it off successfully?
It seemed everything was going against the adaptation from the start. At one point back in the 80s, Terry Gilliam was set to bring Watchmen to the screen, but said the movie was unfilmable. Special effects at the time weren’t up to par and to do justice to the source material he said it would need to be the length of at least a miniseries. From there, the project continued to languish and go through multiple rewrites for years.
Looking back, you can see the logic in some of the big decisions that were made. First, the panel-to-screen mantra makes sense as comic book fans had for years felt disrespected when the studios so blatantly went out of their way to be as unfaithful as possible to the source material, and after the success of works that stayed much truer, the way was finally paved for a success like Sin City (2005), that went so far as to use the panels as storyboards. Snyder himself would use the same strategy to much acclaim the very next year with 300 (2006), yet another celebrated graphic novel from Frank Miller.
Staying true had paid off, and with Snyder’s star on the rise, it made sense on paper to put him in charge of Watchmen. But Watchmen was an entirely different beast from 300, which was a far more visceral work that lent itself better to Snyder’s visual sensibilities than the literary Watchmen. The 2009 movie struggles to be that comic book blockbuster and dense work of art at the same time. Not that there aren’t a few scenes here and there where you can see what Watchmen perhaps could have become had it reached its full potential.
The opening sequence in slow motion, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, is a great introduction to the alternate history as the superheroes are shown to have an influence on world events. The innocuous rise of costumed vigilantes in the 40s to the 80s quickly gives way to the appearance of genuinely superpowered beings, the first of which, Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), so firmly tips the scales in favor of the US that the Soviet Union considerably ramps up its nuclear capabilities. The montage-style portrayal of these important events are extraordinarily powerful and understated at the same time. There’s a sense of the divergence in world events and how the very idea of a superhero has changed things drastically.
Unfortunately, the majority of the rest of the movie fails to live up to the opening. The next scene shows the murder of the gleefully amoral vigilante/government assassin The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) that kicks off the events of the movie. It’s a well-choreographed fight sequence full of chops, punches, karate kicks and Snyder’s signature ramped-up slow-mo. It looks awesome, which is the problem. It’s a slick fight sequence with lots of violence, and it’s only the first of many. There’s nothing glamorous or cool about the fighting and violence in the graphic novel, its purpose is to question the justification of said violence, not to condone or glorify it.
It quickly becomes less of a deconstruction of the genre and more of a celebration of some of its worst elements. The glossiness of the movie adaptation works against it. The shiny Hollywood polish makes it hard to take it seriously as a literary-inspired graphic novel. It becomes just another big budget comic book movie, and it can be easy to side with Alan Moore’s point of view that there are just some things that can’t be translated from the page to the screen. When reading a comic book, you can take all the time you want to drink in all the details on every panel. While the movie tries to cram in as many details as possible, there’s nowhere near enough time to encompass everything the graphic novel touches on.
The runtime of the theatrical version, clocking in at little over two-and-a-half hours, is cutting the story and characters to the absolute bone when compared to the graphic novel’s length of four-hundred and forty-eight pages. Everything feels hurried along and there’s no real way to get a sense of the stakes, the characters, or the settings outside of the obvious 80s tunes played over the soundtrack to remind the audience that it’s the 80s. All of the actors say their lines like they barely have time to say them before going onto the next scene, and there’s a lot of weighty dialogue that feels empty and without any conviction.
Take for instance the rantings of extreme, violent right-wing superhero Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) as he investigates what he believes to be a conspiracy to eliminate the remaining superheroes. It’s all said in dry monotones, as he does things like pose in the rain, all while Snyder uses slow motion yet again. It’s more of a cool movie poster than something that gives us insight into the psyche of the character. In the graphic novel, we understand Rorschach’s view of the world and why he’s chosen to continue his extreme version of vigilantism years after it’s been outlawed. We fail to see the totality of his abusive upbringing (though it is touched upon, albeit very lightly) or how the real-life murder of Kitty Genovese, and the lack of any kind of intervention by onlookers, as something that profoundly impacts him personally is gone entirely. Despite Haley’s almost perfect suitability to the role, it all comes across as hollow.
Perhaps the portrayal of Dr. Manhattan comes the closest to hitting the mark, mainly his origin story which manages to capture some of the magic of the graphic novel. We see the grandeur and the horror of his creation and the almost god-like abilities he’s been endowed with. As the years roll on, he becomes indifferent from humanity to the point where he no longer feels the need to wear any clothes outside of begrudgingly doing so for public appearances only. Crudup gets the tone right, at the very least with his performance. Everyone else beyond those two doesn’t feel like they particularly belong. Again, it’s hard to fault most of the cast when they’re hamstrung by the length of the movie and the strict adherence to the dialogue in the graphic novel, even if it was specifically written for the page only.
The ending is about the only place where there’s a significant divergence from the source material and it arguably is more believable within the context of the fictional world. Still, there’s nothing there to get us attached to this alternate New York City and the millions of lives that are at stake. Much of Watchmen is robbed of its themes and sense of characterization, reduced to yet another superhero flick at the multiplex.
Since Watchmen, no one has really attempted anything as similarly ambitious since. Was it foolish to even try in the first place, an impossible task that no filmmaker and cast could possibly have lived up to doing right by what’s considered to be untouchable by some many fans? If Terry Gilliam had his way, and enough time and resources for a miniseries, could the seasoned director have gotten what made the story work so well?
HBO doesn’t think so, and isn’t even going to try with their new series. Watchmen (2019) won’t be a direct adaptation, and all that anyone really knows right now is it’ll use the world Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created as a springboard for a new vision. Maybe this is the right direction to take in order to avoid direct comparison to the source material, but time can only tell on that one. The movie adaptation never reached the heights of the expectations placed upon it, but neither can it be considered a complete and utter failure when you look at how everything was working against it from the very beginning. It certainly didn’t change Alan Moore’s mind about the adaptations of his work.
Still, the superhero genre marched forward, barely taking a backward glance as it passed Watchmen by. Marvel began its long, determined journey to world domination and DC took its bumbling first steps, trying desperately to catch up all while the colorful heroes and villains punched their way through one densely-populated metropolis after another. All the while avoiding the hard questions, the big questions that a lot of superhero movies fail to ask.
With all these superheroes going about their acts of heroism with their own issues and usage of power and wanton destruction, are their worlds any safer? Hopefully, with the new HBO series underway, there can be a place for the more serious-minded comic book adaptations that have learned from the mistakes of their forebears, and we can have something that finally asks us “Who watches the watchmen?” with some real conviction and understanding.