When the original Watchmen comic-book series began publishing, with a cover date of September 1986, the Cold War was still reality. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a battleground where it faced off against the U.S.-armed mujahideeen, was still grinding on, and the threat of nuclear annihilation was nightmare material for anyone who lived near a big city in the U.S. The so-called “Doomsday Clock,” a symbolic creation of atomic scientists that attempted to quantify the likelihood of global nuclear war, was set at three minutes to midnight. I was a teenager in Pueblo, Colorado, living about 35 miles from the NORAD facility inside Cheyenne Mountain, where the military kept an eye out for a Soviet nuclear-missile attack. Movies like Dr. Strangelove and War Games, which were partly set inside NORAD’s war room, had a special resonance on the Colorado’s Front Range. So did Watchmen.
Watchmen took place in an alternate reality that functioned in part as political parody — the joke was, in part, that this other universe where superheroes named Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian were behaving like Blackwater agents wasn’t so much a funhouse mirror turned on world events as merely a dark reflection of them. The first issue of Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, didn’t make conspicuous reference to global politics. Aside from a few signals (newspaper headlines, a red-headed crank’s “The End is Nigh” sign visible in the comic’s third panel) scattered among artist Dave Gibbons’ drawings, there was no indication this story would ultimately hinge on the fear of all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. But there, on the cover of the comic book — dwarfed by the main-panel illustration of a smiley-face button in a stream of blood — was the Doomsday Clock itself, hands set, ominously, at 12 minutes to midnight. In this way, Moore and Gibbons subtly announced that their 12 issue miniseries would deal directly with the possible end of the world.
More than 20 years later, our world has moved on. The Russian threat isn’t that the country has nukes, but that it has lost track of them. Rogue states and radical terror groups are the new bogeymen, and it took only a single, spectacular terrorist attack in the U.S. to dramatically change the tenor of political discourse in this country. Not at all unrelated, the Afghanistan story continues to unfold. But the iconography of the times, the type of fear embedded in the collective unconscious, is different. ICBMs have been traded for dirty bombs, geopolitical brinksmanship for angry dudes on planes with box-cutters. Watchmen, however, remains mostly the same. All this is just to say I can’t imagine why a contemporary audience that doesn’t have anything already invested in the idea of Watchmen — in the memory, perhaps, of what it was like to read the book in the mid-1980s, when that shit was going down for real — would relate to this wry, complex commentary on what it felt like to be alive (and hanging out in comic-book stores) at that point in human history.
Director Zach Snyder, known for his skill at transferring the images out of Frank Miller’s violent faux-historical tableaux, 300, from the comic book to the screen, has worked largely the same magic with Watchmen. Signature images from the comic are duplicated to a fault, like washed-up superhero Nite Owl’s airship surfacing out of the East River, or the bathrobe-clad Comedian getting chucked out a plate-glass window, many stories up, by his unseen assailant. (Snyder holds that moment in unreal mega-slow-motion, just to prove to fans that he got it right.) Lines of Moore’s original dialogue are transcribed wholesale into the screenplay and mouthed by the cast. The story has not been brightened up considerably and maintains its airs of rumination and ambiguity; given that this is a Hollywood studio picture, Watchmen partisans counted that as a major victory months before the movie’s release. All these things are cited as evidence, by fans, that Snyder has been “faithful” to the original comics. And then the reasoning seems to go that if the comics were a success, and the film adaptation is faithful, then the adaptation, too, qualifies as a success.
Of course that’s a ridiculous notion. If Watchmen is more or less “faithful” to the original comics, that just means that Snyder, in deciding how best to interpret them, opted not to change the main story points and often drew on the comic book panels as if they were storyboards. That’s all. The idea of faithfulness as it’s been discussed doesn’t speak to the tone of the film. It doesn’t address the way Snyder has opted to juice up the fight scenes, often depicted as just a panel or two in the source material, by adding all manner of bone-crunching, blood-gushing body blows. It doesn’t consider the casting decisions, which skew to young and beautiful where the original characters were over the hill and paunchy. It doesn’t account for the fact that, while the comic was laid out and illustrated in a fastidious and mostly unfussy manner that cemented its relation to comics conventions while making its departures from panel-drawing tradition all the more striking, the movie has a totally contemporary, HDTV-ready CG gloss, its herky-jerk rhythm determined by Snyder’s generous deployment of very of-the-moment speed-ramping techniques. Finally, it doesn’t consider the question of whether, 20 years on, a faithful film adaptation of Watchmen was worth making at all.
The comics are brilliant comics. One of their most dazzling techniques is the sometimes playful manipulation of narrative space on the printed page. In one of the 12 issues, the panel layout is symmetrical from start to finish — start in the centerfold and move both forward and backward and you’ll see that the pages mirror each other as you move through the book — a nod to the mirror-image layout of the Rorschach blots from which the story’s twisted and paranoid signature character takes his name. There are multiple narratives, too. The final pages of each issue are dedicated to excerpts from books, magazine articles, and other documents that are purported to exist in the world of Watchmen. Panels from a purportedly popular comic series, Tales of the Black Freighter, are interspersed with the main narrative, with the speech bubbles from the main story overlapping the pirate drawings and material from the pirate narrative appearing in main-story panels. How does that translate to film? Well, Snyder’s created an animated version of Black Freighter that’s available for sale on DVD — and may end up interpolated into the narrative in some upcoming ultimate-director’s-edition DVD and Blu-ray release. It makes a kind of business sense. But, really, what’s the point?
Watchmen is often described in shorthand as “the Citizen Kane of comic books,” meaning it’s a high-water mark for the medium and illustrates the unique possibilities of comic-book narratives. But consider Citizen Kane itself. Could you remake that film as a comic book? Well, you could. But you’d lose so much of what made the film special — the ground-breaking special-effects technology and deep-focus photography, Bernard Herrmann’s musical score, that audacious newsreel pastiche, and of course the commanding performance by wunderkind director Orson Welles — that the deed would hardly be worth doing without bringing something new to the table. (Perhaps Frank Miller could create a hard-boiled variant on the Kane mythology in his copious free time, now that The Spirit has torpedoed his again-nascent filmmaking career.) Similarly, Snyder’s assiduously reverent film version of Watchmen was likely doomed to some degree of mediocrity out of the gate for the very simple reason that he was afraid of changing the material.
We count on filmmakers who are adapting works of literature to display some allegiance to their source material, of course. (Nobody but the slowest children expect Romeo and Juliet to live happily ever after.) But, whether we realize it or not, we count on great filmmakers to interpret that source, and sometimes that requires undermining the original work. Stanley Kubrick, for example, famously turned the grim Cold War-themed novel Red Alert into an outrageous black comedy. David Cronenberg opted for a metatextual adaptation of Naked Lunch, making a fantastical biopic that broadly fictionalized elements from William S. Burroughs’ life, including the writing of Naked Lunch itself. Zack Snyder, of course, has nothing like that up his sleeve. In fact, he’s said in interview that part of the reason he took on the project was to help ensure that another director didn’t get a chance to have his way with the material, teasing, tousling and altering the sacred text. But it’s tantalizing to think of the other directors who have been attached to Watchmen over the years — Gilliam, Aronofsky, Greengrass — and to wonder how they would have bent it to meet their own strengths and sensibilities. Would Gilliam have applied his Rococo, Munchhausen-style whimsy to the subject? Would Greengrass have sent Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian to Iraq? Those movies may well have been disasters. But they would have been fascinating disasters, and they would have been a reflection of the sensibilities of their makers — the world of Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen seen through the prism of another singular, uncommonly fertile creative mind.
If Snyder’s Watchmen is largely a slavish, unimaginative adaptation by a director who mistakes utter fealty for a virtue, what he’s done is still, on some level, quite impressive — there are stretches of Watchmen that work surprisingly well on the screen, not least among them the gorgeously mounted opening-credits sequence, which trips through the 20th century by placing Dr. Manhattan at the Kennedy White House and the Comedian on the grassy knoll at Dealy Plaza. Jackie Earle Haley’s incarnation of Rorschach, the kind of old-school right-wing crank who’d eat a timid publicity hound like Rush Limbaugh for breakfast, is frighteningly spot-on in both masked and unmasked versions. The long section in which Dr. Manhattan narrates his own origin story from the surface of Mars to the accompaniment of music from Koyaanisqatsi is so weird — and, for readers of the original comics, so freighted with consecutive frissons of recognition — that it’s downright riveting. In these moments, the film seems almost cerebral. And, truth be told, I’m a big fan of Billy Crudup’s Dr. Manhattan, whose sad-little-boy pout and supernatural demeanor (and glowing blue penis, I mean come on) had me expecting him to intone at any moment, “Dr. Manhattan does not make love. Dr. Manhattan is love.”
The action scenes are generic, compromised by Snyder’s decision to shoot them in nerd-cool mode rather than attempting to expose anything disquieting or, more to the point, sociopathic in the violence. The sexual-assault scene, a crucial moment in the comics series, is staged in truly brutal fashion — Biff! Pow! — a decision I questioned until I realized that the Comedian’s takedown of Silk Spectre was merely staged with the same bloody, high-decibel gusto that Snyder brought to all of the film’s violent scenes; this scene’s pure hatefulness may call the film’s more conventionally exciting body blows into question, as well. (It’s the one moment during the whole film where I felt the midnight-show audience tense up and gasp, involuntarily reacting to the ugliness on screen.) There’s also a flashback to Dr. Manhattan’s body-bursting adventure in Vietnam, where the U.S. military used him as a weapon against Vietcong soldiers, that’s scored to “The Ride of the Valkyries.” The nod to the horrors depicted in Apocalypse Now would qualify as a ballsy choice if it appeared in a more sober film. Here, it seems a bit glib. Any case Snyder makes for the pathological nature of superhero violence is undermined by his uncritical embrace that kind of rock-em sock-em action, with attendant crack bones and gushing blood, elsewhere in the film.
Worst of all, I’m afraid, is Snyder’s idea of a sex scene, which he seems to have cobbled together after attending a comprehensive Zalman King retrospective. As a proponent of more liberal attitudes toward sexuality in mainstream movies, I struggled not to cackle aloud as poor Malin Akerman arched her back, threw back her head, and elevated her breasts, which were bathed in blue light like something out of an 80s Bruckheimer film, with Patrick Wilson grinding away at her, Cinemax-style, to the incongruous musical accompaniment of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Somehow, the two of them manage not to look embarrassed. (Fleshbot has a link to the full scene, if you’re interested.)
And then there’s the squid. God, this movie could have used a giant squid. In the final chapters of the Watchmen comic books, the villain’s master plan is revealed. Long story short, it has to do with the creation of a huge, sentient being that strongly resembles a squid, with a brain cloned from a human “sensitive.” The giant squid would be teleported into Manhattan, and upon its death it would unleash a “psychic shockwave” that would kill half of New York City. And here’s the thing: all of humankind would believe that the gigantic carcass dropped in midtown is the harbinger of an alien invasion, and would draw together against the new perceived threat, forgetting the long-standing grudge match playing out between superpowers in the Middle East. The opening pages of the final issue are a series of splash panels depicting the destruction, with bodies littering the streets of New York, finally alighting on the disgusting and somehow blackly hilarious image of the squid-thing itself, its sphincter of a mouth pinched closed, its single eye uncomprehending. Utterly dead on arrival.
Maybe that would be difficult to dramatize on screen, though as imagery for the sake of imagery goes, it’s probably the single most unforgettable element in the entire original story. To me, Watchmen without the giant squid just isn’t Watchmen. As Adrian Veidt, the putative world’s smartest man, planned it, the squid’s appearance — grotesque, bizarre, inexplicable — would be the greatest, grandest practical joke ever played. And that’s why the series begins with the death of a mercenary called the Comedian — Veidt’s master plan meant that the kind of chaos and violence that the Comedian reveled in would become a thing of the past. (As an attack on New York City, it would also have an uncomfortable post-9/11 resonance, which is the kind of thing that Cloverfield, especially, made hay of. To some degree, Watchmen seems to be trying to avoid that issue.)
Snyder opted instead for a more conventional ending, in which Dr. Manhattan is framed for a series of explosions that level cities all around the world. Humanity shapes up its act because it’s worried that it will be punished again by the big blue guy, and Manhattan himself agrees to play the patsy, taking the rap because it serves the greater good. (In this way, the ending of Watchmen isn’t much different from the ending of The Dark Knight. Both films feature thoughtful, largely selfless heroes sacrificing their own reputations in order to give the populace a fiction it desperately needs.) People I talk to don’t have a problem with the missing squid. In fact, most of them say they think Snyder’s ending “works better.” If they mean it “makes more conventional narrative sense” then well, yeah, maybe it does. But if we’re expected to applaud changes that are made to move Watchmen closer to a conventional Hollywood narrative, then why is the movie’s “faithfulness” to the original text being touted as such a virtue? I am sure about one thing: I’ve seen plenty of movies where a modern city is leveled by a nuclear explosion, or something very much like it. That’s one of the cinematic legacies left by the Cold War — the big nuke. But I’ve never seen a movie where half of New York is killed by the sudden materialization of a giant faux-alien squid. And I’d really like to see that movie. I kinda hoped Watchmen might be it. So I’m stuck in a somewhat untenable position — I spent most of the movie scorning Snyder for his hamstrung reverence to the original stories, and then I spent the last half-hour resenting him for changing my favorite part. With some projects, I guess, a director just can’t win.