The best/worst adaptation ever
You can’t find a more influential comic book than Watchmen.
Watchmen was a 12 issue comic book limited series released from 1986-1987 that received critical acclaim upon its release. It was the first comic book to be seen by mainstream audiences as a legitimate story which dealt with several serious topics and themes. It wasn’t just a silly picture book that you would buy for your kids at the grocery store for a quarter, this was a comic book for adults. Of course, there were other stories that came before Watchmen that also dealt with serious topics like alcoholism, drug abuse, and the clash of political ideologies, but Watchmen was the one that people outside of the comic book community took notice of. To this day, Watchmen ranks as one of Time Magazine’s 100 greatest novels ever made, standing alongside classics like A Clockwork Orange, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, and To Kill A Mockingbird.
For the comic book community, it, alongside The Dark Knight Returns, ushered in an era of comics where characters became darker, more serious, edgier, and full of 90’s…ness. Referred to as “The Dark Age,” this time period was one of the worst periods ever for the comic book industry, culminating in Marvel’s bankruptcy, but none of that was because Watchmen was a bad story. Quite the contrary. Watchmen was so popular that people misunderstood why it was as successful as it was. Many prominent comic book creators believed Watchmen was successful because it was a dark and mature story, so they tried to emulate that style without understanding that the content of Watchmen is what made it so good, not just because it was aimed at adults. Watchmen was good because it was a good story, one that comic book creators still look to for inspiration to this day. The legacy of Watchmen is undeniable, safely secured in the pantheon of comic book greatness.
And then Zack Snyder made an adaptation of it in 2009.
Before I get into dissecting Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, I wanted to share a little behind the scenes look at what led to this post. Back at the beginning of October, Matt approached me and asked me to revive the “Deep Analysis” feature from a few years ago, saying that we were in a position where we had enough talented writers to pull off a new monthly feature. I was honored, but also a little concerned at how big of a task it was. What the hell could I talk about that would justify a Deep Analysis? What would be worthy of writing several thousand words that people will actually want to read and discuss? What would be a movie that people will be passionate about?
I was debating doing Spring Breakers, a 2013 slice of arthouse shlock that condemns the dissonance between reality and fantasy that’s generated from the media, but I’m pretty sure not many people have seen it. And the people that have seen it would say that the movie is about ASSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. Then I thought about doing Silent Hill so I could write about how valid a good/decent movie is when it butchers its source material, but I didn’t want to beat on the Silent Hill horse more than it has been. But then I found my answer in the comments of my NYCC article on HBO’s upcoming Watchmen series. It was relevant, people are clearly interested in Watchmen, and it would be worth discussing since I’m a pretty big fan of the movie. So let’s do it. Let’s analyze Zack Snyder’s Watchmen.
A Finely Assembled Clock
Watchmen began with the murder of a government-sanctioned vigilante named the Comedian. Murdered in his own apartment, the police are at a loss at how a man like the Comedian, real name Edward Blake, could have been thrown from his apartment window when he was built like a tank. A mentally unhinged vigilante that used to work with the Comedian, Rorschach, investigates the crime scene and believes that someone is trying to murder costumed vigilantes. He warns Nite Owl/Dan Dreiberg, his former partner, Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, the smartest man in the world, Doctor Manhattan/Jon Osterman, the most powerful being in existence that can bend space, time, and matter to his will, and Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter, Manhattan’s girlfriend who is his only tether to humanity. What follows is a huge conspiracy of lies, murder, and existentialism all in a bid to save the world from nuclear Armageddon.
If you were to ask me what separated Watchmen from every other comic at the time, it would be that it relied on extensive world building and flashbacks to flesh out its cast as well as the topics that it addressed head-on. When you read Watchmen, you could just read through the story and be done with it, but that would be doing a disservice to author Alan Moore. At the end of each issue are several pages dedicated to extraneous materials that have no bearing on the rest of the story, but flesh out the world that the characters inhabit.
There are multiple excerpts from the autobiography of the original Nite Owl that detailed his life, how he became a police officer, and what made him become a costumed vigilante. Then you have articles, interviews, and other supplemental material featured at the end that only serve to enhance the world of Watchmen. Yes, it’s supposed to take place in an alternate 1980’s America, one where Richard Nixon is still in office after successfully winning the Vietnam War, but it’s still our world. But so much time and effort are placed in creating a living, breathing world where other side characters exist. Mind you, you don’t have to read these supplemental materials. You can still enjoy the story as is, but the extra material only serves to do more good than not.
Over the course of the comic, when we’re not following the vigilantes try to solve the mystery of who killed the Comedian, we’re following along with multiple different characters who are living their daily lives. They never directly intercede in the main plot with the exception of maybe one character, but they’re around to flesh out the world and ideas that Watchmen brings up. We may follow some police officers, a right-wing newspaper organization, a psychologist, a guy who sells newspapers, a cabbie and her problems with her girlfriend, or we may just read a comic book about a sailor trying to return home to his family before they’re killed by pirates. All of it serves to cement that there are living, breathing people that aren’t wrapped up in the march to doomsday.
Which brings us to the themes that are addressed in the story. I could go on for days talking about each of the story’s main ideas, like how Watchmen addresses identity, patriotism, fate, time, the validity of vigilante justice, crime, and the moral gray area of achieving world peace at the immense cost of life (Ozymandias and Thanos would get along really well). Those are all well and good, but they’re not what I think the story is really about. For me, Watchmen is a story about the Cold War and the threat of a nuclear apocalypse.
Through both the main plot and the various characters interactions, one troubling scenario remains at the forefront; the world is inching closer to nuclear war. Nite Owl dreams of the world ending in an atomic explosion, Ozymandias tries to save the world before the nukes start flying, and the people don’t worry about how Dr. Manhattan could erase reality if he wanted to. Instead, they worry about the Soviet Union. To take a step away from Watchmen for a minute, in 1986 in our world, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were trying to do whatever they could to reduce their nuclear arms, terrified that one of them would be the one to end all life on Earth.
Fears of a nuclear war were prevalent during the 80’s but the fear of the atomic bomb was around for decades. The Cuban Missile Crisis is probably the best example that comes to mind, with even people in the White House like former Secretary of State Robert McNamara saying that the only reason the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t erupt into nuclear war was because of level heads. The Cuban Missile Crisis may have been the theoretical worst case scenario of atomic warfare, the nuclear detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the practical reality. More relevant during the creation of Watchmen was the Chernobyl meltdown, where a nuclear power plant in Russia had a catastrophic meltdown in 1986, rendering all life in the immediate area inhospitable to humans still to this day. Fears of nuclear war were legitimate, and with the two largest superpowers in the world having polarizing ideologies that frequently butted heads, you’d better believe that it was a very real possibility that World War III would erupt over the slightest dispute.
I’d argue that Watchmen could only exist in the 1980’s, right when the Cold War was still at the forefront of politics. Telling the story outside of the 1980’s is possible, but you need to heavily alter it or just ignore the Cold War connections. DC Comics is currently making a sequel to Watchmen called Doomsday Clock, which as of this writing is at issue seven of 12, but it’s not set in the world of Watchmen. It’s set in the modern DC universe, without a single mention of the Cold War. The DC prequels, Before Watchmen, knew that it wasn’t the smartest idea to directly set themselves during the Cold War and the events of the original series, so each of the various miniseries was more character focused and set during whatever time period the creators wanted to set it in. But the 2009 film version tries to tell the story of Watchmen and its Cold War fears from the perspective of 2000’s America through Zack Snyder’s vision. Unfortunately, Snyder made the same mistakes that the comic book creators of the 90’s took from Watchmen that nearly doomed the industry; he took the story at face value. He thought Watchmen’s value was in its violence and darkness.
We’re Locked In With Rorschach
Zack Snyder isn’t a bad director, but he is a director with a very particular style. All you need to do is look at a Zack Snyder movie and you’ll see for better or worse, a lot of his hallmarks. Is there a dark/muted color palette? Is there hardly any joy or positive eomtion? Is the focus more on the action than the story? Are the characters unlikable? If you’ve answered yes to all of these questions, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re watching a Zack Snyder movie. That’s not to say that we’re watching a bad movie, but we’re definitely watching a Zack Snyder one.
At first glance, you may think that Watchmen would be a good movie for Zack Snyder to direct. He holds the original comic in reverence and slavishly tried to recreate scenes from the comics on film the same way that Dave Gibbons drew it. He used David Hayter’s (yes, that David Hayter) script, which took wholesale lines and scenes from the comics that even Alan Moore, who has historically been against any adaptation of his work ever being made, said that Hayter’s script was the closest he saw anyone ever getting to making an ideal Watchmen screenplay. So what happened? Why do some people revile it and call it a bastardization of the comic, despite the time, effort, and love that was clearly put into it?
We might as well start with Zack Snyder, since this is less Watchmen and more Zack Snyder Presents: Watchmen. His style is caked all over the movie, whether it fits or not. Snyder is what you get when you let an edgy teenager become a director. He’s going to focus on what he likes and what he thinks is cool over what other people think. You can easily see this in Batman v. Superman, where most of his time is spent dealing with the sloppy moral dilemma that Batman and Superman have to go through despite none of it making logical sense. However, when the two heroes eventually duke it out, it’s pretty damn awesome. The same can be said for Watchmen, where it seems like Snyder was interested in only two things; Rorschach and the Comedian.
Rorschach was one of the main characters of the comic, but time was evenly spent getting to know all six of our main characters. Each character had an issue dedicated to them where we learned more about them and their personalities, but everyone had an equal amount of development. In the movie, we learn all about Rorshach, but as for Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Silk Spectre, and Nite Owl, we barely delve into their backstories besides a few throwaway lines. Of the four, Dr. Manhattan does have his backstory explained, but it feels like it was out of necessity. They offer the briefest explanation about how Jon Osterman became Dr. Manhattan, but they leave out his relationship with Janie Slater, Laurie Jupiter, and his father forcing him to become a scientist out of necessity, making what we do get feel hollow. That being said, Snyder does spend a lot of time focusing on the Comedian, which lends weight to the fact that Snyder was only interested in what he thought was cool.
The Comedian keeps all of his scenes intact, as does Rorschach. We get an extended fight scene with the Comedian that wasn’t in the comic. Rorschach’s fight scenes are all in graphic detail. The Comedian’s nihilistic dialogue and Rorschach’s grim narration haven’t changed at all. Snyder’s Watchmen is obsessed with these moments, yet the movie doesn’t realize that we’re not supposed to really root for these characters. They’re terrible people and the comic made it vastly aware at how awful both of these characters are, but they’re framed as being badass and cool. The movie cuts down on their condemnation and instead focuses on their greatest hits. Remember when Rorschach threw the vat of hot grease at a guys face? Well, here it is in live action with Rorschach screaming like a maniac about it!
Everything else is downplayed. Ozymandias’ presence in the story is mitigated to his introduction, his assassination attempt, and the ending, which does line up with the comic, but he feels like an after thought here. At least in the comic we frequently saw him talking with other characters, albeit in flashbacks, but we were still able to see him as a fleshed out character. We sort of see how Nite Owl struggles with his identity and accepting that he loves being a vigilante, but you’d have to squint to really see it. Worst of all, the extensive world building is gone. It’s understandable that there had to be some cuts made to make sure the movie didn’t run five hours and it’d be nearly impossible to recreate the pages of supplemental material well, but a lot of what made Watchmen the comic it was is gone. The issue with Dr. Malcolm Long, Rorschach’s psychiatrist, was my favorite issue in the entire series due to how it painted Rorshach as both a monster and a victim, yet showed how the good intentioned doctor could be dragged down to Rorschach’s level, unable to help him and instead adopting Rorschach’s nihilistic viewpoint on humanity. Here… it’s reduced to a quick line about how Dr. Long can’t possibly help him.
But really, the biggest problem that the film adaptation has is that Snyder turned Watchmen into just another action movie. Yes, there was action in the comic, but it was never the focus like it was here. You can’t go a few scenes without an action beat taking place. While some of them are actually really well done, like Hollis Mason fighting against a gang that breaks into his house while flashing back to his days as Nite Owl, you have way more that are just brawls for the sake of brawls. We didn’t come to see the Watchmen fight and pop bones out of arms. Zack Snyder forgot the biggest truth of them all. The original series was a mystery starring vigilantes set during the Cold War that featured action in it. He made an action movie starring 90’s heroes and Batman wannabees that has some mystery elements. All of that Cold War fear of nuclear Armageddon that the characters feel and discuss that was one of the driving themes of the comic? Rarely acknowledged.
And just to quickly bring this up, a lot of the design choices made in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen were to make the movie more similar to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. Nite Owl was designed to be more like Batman, Ozymandias was designed to be a parody of the Schumacher movies, and you could easily swap scenes from Watchmen and The Dark Knight and be unable to tell the difference. We’ll come back to this.
Turning Oxygen To Gold
So if Watchmen completely bungles its themes, turns itself into an action movie, and focuses on the “cool” characters Rorschach and the Comedian over the rest of the main cast, you might be shocked to hear that I’d still rank Watchmen as one of my favorite movies. It’s a testament to how good the original story is that I could overlook the many, many, many, flaws of this adaptation. Yes, it is more interested in Rorschach and his crusade against evil than the other characters, but Rorschach is undeniably the best character in the movie.
In the comic, Rorschach was a man of few words and very few emotions. Most of his dialogue and choice of words was up to the reader’s discretion, when certain moments, like his climactic final scene with Dr. Manhattan, always felt a bit flat to me with how brief and matter of fact it was. I can’t imagine a voice for Rorschach except for Jackie Earle Haley’s performance. He brings a certain menace to the character that we always knew he had, but never saw. Rorschach’s most vile acts were usually done off panel, but we see that this Rorschach is much more active and unstable, which perfectly suits the character. When Rorschach isn’t a violent sociopath, there are a few scenes where we do see a warmer side to him, mostly through his friendship with Nite Owl.
While the movie does away with a lot of the world building, it did decide to expand upon the Minutemen is fantastic ways. The intro to the movie, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is easily one of the best intros I’ve ever seen in a movie, telling a complete story solely through music and action. No dialogue needed. In fact, I’m a fan of the entire soundtrack. The music that plays during Dr. Manhattan’s backstory is simple, yet perfect for the story being told, but the true highlight comes from the licensed music featured throughout. Yes, even the “Hallelujah” sex scene has its charms (obviously NSFW), if only for how laughably over-the-top it is. It also doesn’t hurt that all of the songs used are great tunes in their own right.
But as sacrilegious as it may sound, what really seals the deal for me is the new ending. It isn’t perfect, but it really is superior to the original ending. Not just the epilogue, where Silk Spectre and Nite Owl adopt fake identities and Nite Owl grows a terrible blonde mustache, but the change for what saves the world. Minus the changes made to the characters and what got more screentime that was prevalent throughout the entire movie, the biggest change that riled up fans and critics alike was that the movie drastically altered the ending. And I like it. Fight me.
In the original series, Ozymandias’ plan for world peace was to fake an alien attack on the United States by kidnapping artists, scientists, and writers to create a fake monster with the cloned brain of a psychic that would have been teleported into New York City, let out a psionic EMP, kill millions of people and drive even more insane, and use that alien attack to force world leaders to put their differences aside to fight a non-existent alien threat. It’s goofy and introduces plenty of leaps of logic in the original series as well as introduce ideas that were never mentioned before that point. Now we have to contend with aliens and psychics in the world of Watchmen that don’t really gel with the rest of the world. I know that Dr. Manhattan exists and he’s more bizarre and outlandish than any alien or psychic could ever be, but the characters at least acknowledge that he’s an aberration. His presence is terrifying because of how unnatural he is.
In the movie, Ozymandias’ plan for world peace is a little bit different. Using his vast resources, he creates multiple fission reactors and places them in key cities across the globe. The reactors all share the same energy signature as Dr. Manhattan, so when Ozymandias forces them all to meltdown, they kill millions while emitting the energy signature of Manhattan himself. Every world government instantly turns on Manhattan, effectively ending the threat of nuclear war because now they have a common enemy; Dr. Manhattan. Dr. Manhattan agrees that this plan is for the best to ensure a lasting peace and leaves Earth for another galaxy, allowing the peace to exist.
The problem that the original ending had was that it was easy to prove that Ozymandias’ alien attack was a fake. In the first issue of Doomsday Clock, civilians are protesting against him because they discover how the alien was a model, how Ozymandias was responsible for kidnapping the artists/scientists/writers, and the peace was instantly shattered. At least in the movie, it’s much harder to prove that Ozymandias was the mastermind behind it all. Everyone knows who Dr. Manhattan is in the world of Watchmen. Everyone saw him have a mental breakdown on live TV. So when a few days later and energy that is similar to Manhattan’s energy destroys New York, Paris, Moscow and a whole host of other cities, you better believe that people are more willing to believe it. It just makes more sense to turn the world’s greatest hero into the world’s greatest villain.
Damon Lindelof: Smartest Man or Smartest Termite?
It’s ironic that when Watchmen released in 1986, it revolutionized the comics industry, but when a movie was made about it in 2009, it was met with indifference. Sure, some people loved it, but others hated it, or worse, thought nothing about it. The most revolutionary comic in existence was met with apathy when it was released to theaters. I think that Watchmen was met with lukewarm reception was because instead of it being a trailblazer like its comic counterpart, it was just following the then current trend of comic book movies.
It’s not a stretch to say that The Dark Knight is one of the best comic book movie ever made. It redefined what a comic book adaptation could be, introducing themes, ideas, and depicting violence that no mainstream audiences had ever seen before in a comic book movie. Watchmen was still in development when The Dark Knight released, but you better believe that Warner Brothers tried to force Snyder to make Watchmen as similar to Nolan’s Batman movies as possible. This is purely my own opinion here, I don’t have any hard evidence to support this claim, but it’s hard not to notice that Watchmen feels more like a Batman movie than an adaptation of Watchmen, or at the very least, a Watchman movie put through a Batman filter.
Watchmen was stuck between a rock and a hard place. You had one of the best stories ever told, but it was created from a very 2000’s mindset. Zack Snyder tried to make it his version of Watchmen, putting a focus on what he liked and ignoring what made the comic stand out. The Cold War commentary was put on the back burner to make it an action movie. Warner Bros. tried to make it aesthetically similar to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. In short, everything that made Watchmen Watchmen was removed and replaced with… well, a late 2000’s action movie. The fact that Watchmen still comes out in one piece by the end of it is a miracle to say the least, but that the movie is still visually striking, contains some truly spectacular scenes, phenomenal performances, and even finds a way to improve on the original source material is a goddamn gift from the gods.
2019 is shaping up to be a big year for the franchise. Doomsday Clock is set to conclude (hopefully) sometime in the summer and Damon Lindelof’s version of Watchmen will release as well. He’s been pretty quick to refer to Watchmen as sacred text and that he’ll keep it intact but remix it, whatever the hell that means. I’m not expecting HBO’s Watchmen to be a perfect version of the story. Nothing will compare to the original limited series. But experimenting with it isn’t a bad thing. Zack Snyder’s version was full of experimentation and while some would argue that most of it was poorly planned and ultimately failed, there are some like myself that adore it. No one is ever going to be 100% happy with any adaptation of Watchmen. Hell, you can say that about any adaptation in existence. But change is not inherently bad. Make it Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen. We’ll always have Alan Moore’s Watchmen and yes, we’ll always have Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. I just hope the new show lives up to its lofty expectations.