‘Watchmen’: A Tale of Two Movies

‘Watchmen’: A Tale of Two Movies
A poster of the 2009 film "Watchmen." (Image credit: Warner Bros)

So here's a simple question — Can you adapt theonce-considered unadaptable?

We're talking specifically of course about Warner Bros.' bigscreen version of writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons' landmark12-issue 1986 comic book series "Watchmen," ambitiously directed by 300'sZack Snyder.

The simple answer to this question is yes...

... and no.

Is that answer a cop-out? Maybe, but bear with us. Ifnothing else, "Watchmen" really is a tale of two movies.

The first movie, the one that gets the "yes"response, is a technically and artfully brilliant piece of auteur moviemakingthat proves Snyder is noone-hit wonder. This is a major up-and-coming filmmaker announcing hispresence to the world.

For comic book fans, or at least those who've read theoriginal story, it?s a near flawless interpretation given its timerestraints. Sure, some purists may quibble with certain elements of the storythat out of necessity never made it into the script or were left on the cuttingroom floor, and there is the question about the dramatically re-imaginedending, but it's hard to imagine fans finding that much to criticizeabout Snyder's faithful vision.

From the script to the cinematography to editing to the performancesof the cast (with Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, Billy Crudup as Dr.Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian, and Patrick Wilson as Nite OwlII standing out particularly), everything about "Watchmen" makes itabundantly clear what Snyder and his cast have been saying to fans for months —the graphic novel was held in the highest of reverence.

If "Watchmen" is the holy grail of comic books,the movie prays at the altar at which it lays.

The question that's going to be providing some restlessnights for Warner Bros.' production executives over the next several weeks,however, is will Watchmen play to everyone else — the moviegoerswithout any familiarity with not only the source material, but the decades ofsuperhero and comic book mythology the source material deconstructs. After all,how much sense does that make to someone without a working knowledge of theconstruction?

The over four-hundred page comic book story overcomesthat shortcoming brilliantly. Like any great work of literature, "Watchmen"the novel reads like a rich, expansively-detailed, self-contained world thatmight register on an elevated level to comic book fans, but still plays on veryhigh level to anyone with the ambition to give themselves over to the unusualnarrative.

But a roughly 150-minute movie adaptation of a 400 pagestory is a different animal altogether, and this is what defines the second"Watchmen" — the one that looks and sounds dazzling and might holdsome interesting ideas and themes, but runs the huge risk of confounding thoseunfamiliar with or unprepared for its vast scope.

It's not that the storyline doesn't make anysense. Snyderand his screenwriters do a yeoman's job of unifying the original story'svarious plots and storylines into a fairly straight forward narrative — who iskilling former superheroes and what does it have to do with impending nuclearArmageddon between a mid-1980's United States and still-Communist Russia?

The breadth of the narrative and some of the imagery,however, is a whole other story. Moviegoers have made it clear they're willingto accept costumed superhero minus any camp-factor given a consistent internallogic. But this might be "Watchmen's" fatal flaw — it just doesn'thave the time to establish an internal logic of its own, and moviegoers can'tborrow an experience from any other film to use in its place.

What will the unfamiliar make of a story that in a matterof moments jumps from a brutally violent maximum security prison escape sceneto a metaphysical conversation about the miracle of life between a naked bluegod and his ex-girlfriend on the surface of Mars? Or juxtaposes a masked,trench-coated vigilante taking a meat cleaver to a child killer's skull in anurban slum to same said masked trench-coated vigilante trying to preventnuclear holocaust in a giant fortress in Antarctica?

What will "general audiences" makeof a film that earns a well-deserved hard R rating by uniting cartoonishsuperhero nostalgia with brutal violence and graphic sex?

"Watchmen" the comic book story asks a lot ofreaders without a working knowledge of superheroes but ultimately rewards themwith a deeply satisfying and thought provoking experience as well as somethingof an education.

"Watchmen" the movie asks the same ofmoviegoers without the same working knowledge, but just by the pure limitationof its length, can't provide the same education or provide much in the way ofcontext for its wildly varying elements, not to mention its jumping around intime (and for that matter, space).

So the answer is "yes", fans can rest easy— it's the movie they've wanted and waited years for. For them it is adaptable.But for everyone else, the answer may be "no". "Watchmen"might be fated to being a very good piece of nobly-intended filmmaking thatthrough no real fault of its makers will go ultimately unappreciated.


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Michael Doran
Newsarama Editor-in-Chief

I'm not just the Newsarama founder and editor-in-chief, I'm also a reader. And that reference is just a little bit older than the beginning of my Newsarama journey. I founded what would become the comic book news site in 1996, and except for a brief sojourn at Marvel Comics as its marketing and communications manager in 2003, I've been writing about new comic book titles, creative changes, and occasionally offering my perspective on important industry events and developments for the 25 years since. Despite many changes to Newsarama, my passion for the medium of comic books and the characters makes the last quarter-century (it's crazy to see that in writing) time spent doing what I love most.