Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s celebrated graphic novel Watchmen has long been considered ‘unfilmable’. When you consider the film’s turbulent production history, it looked likely to stay that way too. Before Warner Bros. asked director Zack Snyder to come onboard in 2005, the film had already failed to go into production at the hands of no less than three major studios, three directors and multiple script rewrites. The success of Snyder’s 300, despite its MA15+ rating, gave Warner confidence in the director’s ambitious vision for making the most faithful adaptation possible – rape, child murder, impotence and a naked blue guy all inclusive.
The result is a visually striking film that, despite its flaws, is an ominous, provocative and audacious comic book adaptation in the same vein as The Dark Knight…albeit one that is not quite as easy to, well, watch.
Much to the relief of fans, Snyder fought tooth and nail to have the film set in its original 1985 timeframe instead of modern day as early drafts attempted. However, this isn’t the 80′s you might remember – Richard Nixon is entering his fifth term as president, JFK’s assassination was in fact ordered by the Government and masked superheroes were the deciding factor in Vietnam, leading to an outright US victory.
History is given a skewed rewrite in Watchmen.
Not all of history is completely rewritten; tensions between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War have reached a critical level, many predicting an impending nuclear war. It’s an alternate timeline that might take newcomers some getting used to; Snyder does his best with limited time to ease the audience into Alan Moore’s universe by using a history-condensing montage, fittingly overlayed with Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’. Although, what on earth Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is doing later on in the film is anyone’s guess.
Even though we are taken back to 1985, the relevance of the films underlying message is not lost on modern society; we still exist in a world on the brink of destruction, and we only have to blame ourselves. Sure, we don’t have a fluorescent blue man (a CG Billy Crudup) capable of reconstructing matter at the flick of a wrist, who is a member of a group of masked vigilantes pursuing justice; but if we did, I’m sure they’d be as troubled as the Watchmen are here.
Having since retired from crime fighting at the introduction of a new law banning masked superheroes, former Watchman The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) turns up dead in his apartment, immediately raising suspicion that someone is trying to kill off each of the masked vigilantes. The psychopathic Watchman named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) begins his own investigation into the murder, providing the basis of his cold Noir-esque voice over, ultimately uncovering something far more sinister than he originally thought.
But Watchmen is more than just a murder investigation; while it’s not exactly an origin story, the film intertwines flashback sequences into the core story to explain how each member became a masked crime fighter, revealing their dark and problematic pasts. The superhuman Dr. Manhattan and psychotic Rorschach, portrayed with cold menace by a standout Jackie Haley, are particularly fleshed out. Yet such shifting chronology can make for a turbulent journey; the pacing is sometimes off, expected for a film nearing two and a half hours, and the convoluted narrative structure will likely prove to be confusing to newcomers. This is due to the films most ironic critique; Watchmen is perhaps too faithful to the graphic novel.
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By attempting to recreate the source text frame by frame, Snyder’s film mightn’t appeal to the moviegoers unfamiliar with the Watchmen universe. The extreme level of violence, highly mature themes, long runtime and relatively unknown cast are not the typical makings of a summer superhero film.
Yet for the very same reasons, one must commend Snyder. Watchmen needed to be the fan film it is; if Snyder went about drastically altering the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, it would have certainly caused a bitter outcry from the many fans. Snyder has also achieved what many said was impossible; he has in-fact filmed the unfilmable, and arguably done so as well as anyone could have.
Watchmen is a visually arresting and affecting adaptation that mostly does the source material proud. Yet because of the specific appeal of Alan Moore’s mature graphic novel, and the convoluted narrative structure that has resulted from its translation to film, Zack Snyder’s faithful recreation is unlikely garner the wide praise that rightfully bestowed last year’s The Dark Knight. After all, The Comedian is no Joker.