25. Watchmen (2009)

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Malin Åkerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Carla Gugino, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson

On the subject of movies I once believed I’d never get the chance to see, right at the top of the list for a long time stood “Watchmen.” Intimately familiar with Alan Moore’s graphic novel since I first read my father’s copy from cover to cover in 1998, I still didn’t see any hope of there ever being a screen adaptation. That is, at least, not one that could hope to be in the same ballpark as the brilliance of Alan Moore’s original work. If you only read one comic in your life, it should be “Watchmen.” The 12-issue comic series that ran from September 1986 to October 1987 plays out very much like a movie that you can read, yet is filled with so much material that I can understand why there were so many critics who deemed it “unfilmable.” Enter director Zack Snyder, who delivers us the most faithful adaptation possible of the greatest comic ever published.

Not long after first reading “Watchmen,” I started putting together a mock cast for the movie. It was filled with big-name actors, largely based on who I thought the characters as drawn most closely resembled. I had recently watched “Murder in the First” with Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon, and thought based on his performance that Kevin Bacon would make an ideal Rorschach… I was a teenager, what do you expect? While Bacon might have done an okay job, I’m happy to say that Zack Snyder made the right move in casting Jackie Earle Haley. From Rorschach’s opening journal entry, it is clear there was never anyone else who could have worn the mask and fedora of the vigilante conspiracy theorist.

The “Watchmen” comic series was originally to have featured characters from the defunct Charlton Comics, a company whose run lasted from 1946 to 1985. DC Comics had approached Alan Moore with the idea of reintroducing said characters, but changed their minds when they realized his story would leave them with very little they could do with their new acquisitions afterward. Instead, the agreement was that Moore would change the identities of the costumed heroes in his story. For the record: The Question became Rorschach, Blue Beetle became Nite Owl, The Peacemaker became The Comedian, Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, and Thunderbolt became Ozymandias. Silk Spectre, meanwhile, is a combination of no less than three different characters (only one of which, Nightshade, originated from Charlton).

With one exception, they are all mere costumed crime fighters. The only one who qualifies as superhuman is Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who, as the human John Osterman, was pulled apart at the atomic level in an accident at a science lab, and since reintegrating himself he has exhibited almost godlike abilities. Dr. Manhattan’s only remaining connection with humanity lies in his relationship with Laurie Jupiter (Malin Åkerman), a.k.a. Silk Spectre. By 1985, he and the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are the only members of their team still sanctioned by and working for the U.S. government. All others, except for the defiant Rorschach, have complied with a law passed in 1977 which effectively banned masked vigilantism. When the Comedian is murdered in the movie’s opening scene, Rorschach springs in to action, sensing a plot to do away with the former members of the Watchmen team one by one.

Although Rorschach is without a doubt the most entertaining character of the movie, the one charcter who I can get behind the most is his friend and former partner, Daniel Dreiberg, who once fought crime as the very Batman-like Nite Owl. Since 1977, he has been reminiscing of days long gone. It’s sad, but it also feels very realistic, thanks to a terrific effort from actor Patrick Wilson in bringing his character to life.

Just as important as the characters in “Watchmen” is its setting and its music. The alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is in his fifth term as President and war with the Soviet Union seems inevitable is realized to perfection. Zack Snyder’s attention to detail in this regard is nothing short of remarkable. Every song that is referenced in the graphic novel makes an appearance here. One extra addition is “99 Luftballons” by Nena, appropriate not only for the time period but also its apocalyptic subject matter. My favorite, however, is “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix.

Never before or since has a theatrical experience left me as breathless as did the midnight showing of “Watchmen” I attended on March 6th, 2009. As with the film adaptation of “V for Vendetta,” my favorite sequences from the graphic novel are easily my favorite parts of the movie:

1) Rorschach in prison. After being framed for the one murder he didn’t commit, Rorschach runs afoul of some of the hoodlums he helped put behind bars, killing one in a gruesome manner after his own life is threatened. Rorschach also puts up with a psychiatrist whom he rightly accuses of being more interested in making a name for himself than truly wanting to help anyone, telling him his origin story. The details of how the man we know as Rorschach came to see the world in black and white are slightly altered, if only to avoid plagiarizing the movie “Mad Max,” but the effect is the same. But best by far is his point of view that it is not he who should be in fear for his life while incarcerated, but rather his fellow inmates who should fear for theirs.

2) Laurie appeals to Dr. Manhattan’s humanity. After Laurie leaves Dr. Manhattan for Daniel, and after Dr. Manhattan has been accused of giving cancer to many people who were close to him, he leaves Earth for Mars. Later, he brings Laurie there because he can see the future as well as he can the present or the past (indeed, time has little meaning to this former watchmaker anymore) and he knows she’s going to try to convince him to come back to Earth. He can see that something catastrophic is in Earth’s future, but he no longer has interest in our little blue world or the people who inhabit it. It’s only after a discussion about Laurie’s parentage that Dr. Manhattan comes to appreciate the miracle of human life. It’s the most beautiful moment of the graphic novel, and the movie’s version gets it exactly right.

As popular as the comic book/superhero film is right now, and as common as it is now to see many of those films turn into franchises with multiple sequels, this was never the purpose or intent of “Watchmen.” The movie didn’t achieve the box office success that anyone had hoped for, so it’s just as well. As much fun as this movie is, you’ll know by the time it’s over that the story has reached a logical conclusion. Nothing ever ends, but that doesn’t mean that “what comes next” can’t be left up to our imagination.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Brilliant! I join you in the hope that you have tempted others to read the comic book version and to view the movie. I agree with your analysis of the well chosen cast which is especially crucial in the very successful rendition of the movie version. Expecting to be entertained, certainly, but very seldom really caring about the characters in a “comic book” movie, I found that this movie is definitely a huge exception, as was the original comic book. I remember waiting for each new release in the series with such anticipation that I could hardly wait until Charles, Jr. finished reading it first!

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