Watchmen, a 12-part series of comics or “graphic novels” written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons in 1985, is a critically acclaimed tale that has been lauded as the “coming of age” moment for the comic book industry. The story surrounds events as occurring in an alternate timeline of American history in which masked heroes have played paramount roles in occurrences like the Vietnam and Cold Wars, the latter of which serves as the setting of the majority of the story. Moore, who has helmed a number of dark, gritty comics including V for Vendetta and From Hell used Watchmen to tackle a number of themes that almost serve as a sort of critique of the comic-book industry and the heroes they entail. Moore’s series, unlike most other adventures involving caped crusaders, captures these “heroes” in a real-world context. This world, like the Watchmen themselves, is fallible; rife with corruption, greed, and a marked indifference toward the values and idealism that these vigilantes wish to instill.
The “Watchmen” consist of a 5-member group of masked enforcers of “justice”. I say “justice” instead of “law” because in this alternate timeline, these supposed heroes have been outlawed by the U.S. government aside from those members who have decided to enlist as government agents. This guild of fighters, unlike most other “superheroes” are mortal human-beings with the exception of one Jon Osterman who, due to an accident during his work as a Physicist, is left with the command of all the raw energy of an atomic bomb. Osterman or “Mr. Manhattan” is a being that lives outside of the realm of normal time and frequently “remembers” events that have happened long in the past or even those that have yet to have happened. This effect prevents the chronology of Watchmen from being a forward-moving stream of thought as certain scenes from Mr. Manhattan as well as the rest of the characters often stumble between the past (through flashbacks), the present (around 1986), and future. Aside from Mr. Manhattan, the “Watchmen” is comprised of four other members: Rorschach (Walter Kovacs), Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt), the second Nite Owl (Daniel Dreiberg), and the second Silk Spectre (Laurie Juspeczyk). As mentioned before, each of these characters are a far cry from the clichéd forces of good, often seen in other DC comics publications and can best be described as normal, flawed, and painfully fallible human beings who have the physical and mental capacities to do much more than the average human being, and subsequently cause much more harm. In Michael J. Prince’s essay “Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen” he offers an inspired critique of the parallels between each of the “Watchmen” and American society.
Prince, regarding America as a whole, quotes Timothy Melley’s Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, saying “The concept of the liberal individual [. . .] has long been celebrated in American political culture, particularly in the guise of ‘rugged individualism’ and atomistic ‘self-reliance’” (Prince 817). This phenomenon can clearly be seen in the need for vigilantism within each of the characters (save for Manhattan) as each of them is driven with by their own individual codes of justice with the strongest of convictions; a fact which alienates them from the rest of society and is likely what leads to the banning of masked heroes within the context of the story. In this sense, one could see Moore (who is British) using Watchmen as a critique of American society as a whole. Further, the Watchmen themselves are hardly sympathetic characters and, despite being the technical protagonists of the story, have themselves contributed heavily to the current state of society that they feel compelled to “fix”. These contributions came in the form of their involvement in monumental events in American history such as the Vietnam War which, due to the U.S. prevailing in said conflict, resulted in Richard Nixon maintaining the Presidency and further deterioration of U.S. international relations.
Prince goes on to critique the characters in their similarities with different facets of the United States. Among these arguments, he discusses the fact that The Comedian (Edward Blake) can be considered a personification of the darker sides of American nationalism which include ruthless abandon in matters of international retaliation (e.g. Blake murdering his Vietnamese girlfriend in response to a negligible assault) and its lack of hesitance to employ excessive force when the situation calls for it, doing so without a flicker of remorse. This analysis includes various other characters such as Mr. Manhattan as representing America’s strategy of nuclear deterrence, or even the Cold War as a whole being that both sides (USSR & US) employed similar strategies. As a whole, his analyses prove to be very insightful and an excellent supplement to the Watchmen series in its entirety.
Despite major skepticism by Alan Moore’s massive cult following of fans as well as Moore himself, in 2009 Zack Snyder took it upon himself to helm the filming of Watchmen, an undertaking received with both scorn and excitement. The film itself received a mixed bag of reviews from critics but was generally favored by individual film enthusiasts (or possibly comic enthusiasts). Snyder, who has also directed films including 300, Sucker Punch, and the rebooted version of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead has no aversion to violence in his films and given Watchmen’s nature he seemed like an appropriate choice. In filming the series, Snyder was sure to employ set-pieces that were closest to the darker spectrum of the color-palette, with a noticeable grime to the environment; a decision that effectively gave the audience the impression that they were viewing a world as imperfect as their own, perhaps even more so. The darkness of the set-pieces were offset very expertly by the bright and colorful appearances of Mr. Manhattan and the Silk Spectre; emphasizing the sentiment that these entities, these “Watchmen” hold themselves on a level above the darkness that is their world, whether or not this stands true.
Snyder, with little or no artistic assistance from creator Alan Moore, remained in his comfort zone and stuck with the formula that he had employed in various other films. The combat scenes within the film are absolutely the stand-out feature of the film as Snyder uses slow-motion capture effects as seen movies such as The Matrix and Snyder’s own 300, not to emphasize the martial arts per se, but to truly key in on the brutality present throughout. Scenes such as the Comedian’s assassination and the climactic battle between the second Nite Owl, Rorschach, and Ozymandias are a sort of crash-course in human anatomy where the slow-motion effects allows the audience to see each blow connect with a sickening crunch or snap while blood droplets cascade down the surrounding décor. Snyder also manages to capture the savage nature of certain characters, namely Rorschach, without the use of anything but makeup and believable acting.
Scenes such as the prison riot in which Rorschach is pitted against inmates that he convicted himself, show that Snyder was fully capable of attaining the graphic novel’s level of violence without CGI, but it still did little to supplement the material from Moore’s novel that was omitted which I will discuss during the adaptation analysis. In sum, Snyder’s film fell prey to the same thing that many lackluster book-to-film adaptations do: time restriction. Despite the fact that the film ran over 2 hours, the amount of material that was excluded from the film left many viewers in a state of confusion due to the impromptu introduction of new ideas that the novel had more time to flesh out. Key story elements such as comic-with-a-comic: Tales of the Black Freighter, a pronounced feature in the original graphic novel, were left out until after the movie’s release which earned Snyder the ire of Watchmen purists and deprived movie-goers of valuable plot devices.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Watchmen creator Alan Moore said of the impending film adaptation of his work, “There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t,” adding, “I increasingly fear that nothing good can come of almost any adaptation”(Flagg). According to critical reception, Moore would have been about half right in that the film adaptation of Watchmen just about broke even between favorable and unfavorable critical reviews. However, as I mentioned during my film analysis, the film had its share of successes as it did shortfalls.
In terms of what was done correctly in Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Watchmen, I will once again mention the effective use of color and environmental ambience to properly capture the tones set in the graphic novel. The darkness of New York City, from the slums in where Rorschach resided to the penthouse suites of Ozymandias and the Comedian, was almost palpable as only muted colors were used. Snyder also did well in his presentation of the more violent aspects of the novel through the use of slow-motion capture and a heavy reliance on break-away set-pieces which gave the audience a proper perspective as to how powerful the characters truly were. In this sense, Watchmen proved to be a very effective action film with deep philosophical implications present and available for those willing to seek them out. However, this is where those successes begin and end as the film did little to achieve Moore’s true artistic vision in a filmable medium.
Aside from the omission of pertinent story elements such as the aforementioned Tales of the Black Freighter, the true reason that Alan Moore and many of his followers felt the story was “un-filmable” becomes apparent only to those who are familiar with the comic series in its entirety. As discussed in David Barnes’ essay, “Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen”, Watchmen failed as a successful adaptation of Moore’s original work simply because of the limitations presented by an entertainment medium that must flow forward at a consistent pace. As Barnes says on page 54 of his essay, “In chapter four of Watchmen the eﬀect of timelessness is, however, also achieved by distancing the reader from the usual visual timeline through the use of poetic structures” […] “the viewer may move from a subjective identiﬁcation with time as it is experienced by the narrated characters. These moments jolt the reader from the seductive grip of the narrative and reinforce the comic book’s identity as a material art object” (Barnes 54). This type of artistic method as employed by Moore in his comics is simply not possible to achieve in film which relies solely on what is immediately visual (what the viewer can see at any given time) to relay a message. Graphic novels or comics do not share this restriction and allow the reader a chance to reference previous chapters and lines of dialogue in order to full grasp the author’s message. Moore himself, in the same interview mentioned before said”
“What I’d like to explore is the areas that comics succeed in where no other media is capable of operating.” He explained, “With a comic you can stare at the page for as long as you want, and check back to see if this line of dialogue really does echo something four pages earlier, whether this picture is really the same as that one, and wonder if there is some connection there.” (Flagg)
Sadly, this sentiment rings true as evidenced by Snyder’s film. In sum, Watchmen as depicted on the silver screen succeeds as a riveting story about the fallibility of human nature through the supposed “best” of us, but it ultimately fails to maintain the artistic integrity of the original work which, according to its creator, belongs in no other medium.
Barnes, David. Time in the Gutter: Temporal Structures in Watchmen. Brill Academic Publishers. 2009. Accessed 7/8/2012.
Flagg, Gordon. Another Look At: Watchmen. American Library Association/Booklist Publications. 2009. Access 7/8/2012.
Prince, Michael J. Alan Moore’s America: The Liberal Individual and American Identities in Watchmen. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. P 815-830. 2006. Accessed 7/8/2012