the first week of March 2009, a pop culture phenomenon is sweeping the U.S. that
for once actually has some worth. It’s the movie adaptation of Alan Moore and
Dave Gibbon’s legendary WATCHMEN, a twelve issue DC miniseries from
1986-87 that became the world’s first graphic novel (although Moore has always
maintained the term comic) and has remained in print ever since. Along with
Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, Art Spiegelman’s MAUS and J.M. DeMattais
and Jon J. Muth’s MOONCHILD, it was a--or even the--seminal work of the
mid-1980s comics revolution that changed the field forever.
among the book’s rabid fans, having discovered it back in 1987 or ’88. I’ll
spare you the details of that discovery (unlike seemingly all other WATCHMEN
articles, which insist on rehashing the boring minutia of how their respective
writers became WATCH-nerds) other than to say that I was immediately taken with
it, and still am all these years later.
Rereading it for the hundredth or so time before seeing the movie--more on
that subject in a minute--I was struck by just how strong and impacting it
remains. WATCHMEN was considered the height of innovation upon its first
appearance, an unapologetically adult-oriented superhero saga with all the
intelligence and complexity of a good novel; those last two points are no longer
especially surprising or unexpected (due in part to subsequent,
nearly-as-brilliant Moore sagas like FROM HELL), but WATCHMEN holds up uniquely
well in all aspects.
It begins with one of the most daring and iconic
sequences in comic history: the stunningly cinematic pullback from a splash of
blood to the top of a big city high rise. And the rest of the series doesn’t
disappoint, being exciting, touching and uncompromisingly dark. Whereas Moore’s
earlier comic epic V FOR VENDETTA was confusing and frequently hard to follow,
WATCHMEN is smooth and streamlined despite the fact that it contains around a
dozen central characters, numerous subplots and innumerable flashbacks.
The subject is ageing and/or screwed-up superheroes.
WATCHMEN apparently began life with existing characters owned by DC Comics, but
managing editor Dick Giorando had other ideas, so Moore and Gibbons ended up
creating their own stable of supermen. Among the many unforgettable personages
that emerged were the shady Rorschach, the borderline-evil Comedian, the
radioactive Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias, the world’s smartest man. All are
caught up in an alternate universe where Richard Nixon is still president in the
year 1985 and someone appears to be killing off costumed heroes. The specter of
imminent nuclear war overshadows everything, making for a tense, doom-laden
Dave Gibbons’ artwork fully matches Allan Moore’s
conceptual genius, with a gamut of finely detailed, boldly colored (by John
Higgins) panels. The angles and movement within the frames are cinema-worthy.
So too the lighting, which has a tendency to impressionistically change hues
Do I gush overmuch? I guess so. What can I say? I’m
a certified WATCHMAN fanatic!
Now onto the movie.
To my surprise, I liked Zack Snider’s filming of
WATCHMEN a fair amount. I was primed to be hyper-critical regarding Snider’s
fidelity to his source material, as I’m sure most WATCHMEN fans are. In a way I
feel sorry for Snyder, as his film has an awful lot to live up to.
While I’ve never believed WATCHMEN is “unfilmable” (as
some have claimed), I do acknowledge that Moore and Gibbons have set the bar
impossibly high for any prospective adaptor (Terry
Gilliam, Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky have all taken cracks
at it over the years). If nothing else, in trying to live up to the graphic
novel Snider has created one of the decade’s most daring and ambitious
movies--you certainly won’t find too many others that deal seriously with
quantum physics, nuclear Armageddon and the nature of godhood, and with settings
that include New York City, Antarctica and the canyons of Mars. If the comic
didn’t exist I fully believe those critics who panned the film would have
instead dubbed it a flawed masterpiece.
The flick certainly isn’t without problems, an
inevitability when compressing a twelve-issue comic into a 2˝-hour framework.
Snyder is obviously most comfortable orchestrating action and violence, but he
still pays due attention to the characters and their interrelationships--well,
most of them. Ozymandias gets short shift, reduced from the morally
complex figure of the comic to an effeminate two-dimensional bad guy, while the
characters of Hollis (a.k.a. Nite Owl 1) and Sally Jupiter (pity actress Carla
Gugino, who’s nearly buried under poofy wigs and caked-on old age make-up) are
all-but subsumed, as is the latter’s decidedly complicated relationship with the
Comedian. To be fair, those things might be addressed on the DVD, which is
supposed to run much longer than the theatrical release, but what’s up with that
new ending??? Goddammit, I LOVED the squid (if you’ve read the novel you know
what I’m referring to) and was damned annoyed it doesn’t turn up in this
otherwise scrupulously faithful adaptation.
But Snider does get quite a few things right. He knows
how to set a scene with focus and economy, and without a lot of extraneous
set-ups. I was certain he’d wimp out in depicting the comic’s “mature”
elements, but he definitely hasn’t--if anything Snyder has actually surpassed
Moore and Gibbons in the sex and violence department. His use of music is also
impressive, from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Sounds of Silence” played over the
funeral sequence to the drops from Philip Glass’ KOYANISQAATSI score that
accompany Dr. Manhattan’s inception (although the inclusion of “Ride of the
Valkyries” during the Vietnam scenes, in an apparent nod to APOCALYPSE NOW, is a
There are even some performances to savor, notably
those of Billy Crudup, who strikes just the right note of detached solemnity as
Dr. Manhattan, and Jackie Earle Haley, who’s simply pitch-perfect as
Rorschach--so is the representation of his ever-shifting facial mask, surely one
of the more visually compelling superhero movie accessories on record. It’s
just too bad, though, that the film never bothers to fill us in on where
Rorschach got that that mask (guess we’ll have to wait for the DVD for that,
In summation, WATCHMEN the movie is a good one that at
times verges on greatness. I know I’ll be seeing it again, so yeah, you can
consider me satisfied.
Now I’ll examine the other WATCHMEN movie, which turned up on DVD earlier
this week. It’s actually a “motion comic,” with every word and image from the
original graphic novel painstakingly reproduced for the screen with
semi-animated movement, music and voice-over dialogue. Lasting 5˝ hours, it’s
not for the casual viewer, and nor should it be taken as a substitute for the
real thing. But for those familiar with the graphic novel it’s a fascinating
piece of work.
exist other motion comics (such as the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired
DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH),
but this is easily the most accomplished I’ve seen. Its fidelity to the source
material and range of movement are unparalleled for the form. We’re given
mobile depictions of what were intended as still pictures, an altogether novel
and interesting take on the brilliance that is WATCHMAN that also has the effect
of inadvertently pointing out mistakes in proportion and perspective (meaning it
will be especially valuable for art students).
only problems with the motion comic version of WATCHMEN are: 1). a single
guy does all the voices (even the women’s) for reasons I can’t fathom (Warner
couldn’t afford to hire anyone else??), and 2). it’s missing the textual
interims of the original. These are brief snippets from imaginary books,
psychiatric reports, interviews and articles that come attached to the end of
each chapter, and serve to enrich the characters and their universe. I realize
there probably exists no satisfying way to transfer the above to motion comic
form, but their absence leaves a definite void.
well. At least WATCHMEN will always exist in its original and intended form, in
which guise I’ve known it for the past twenty years. I’ve long realized the
time will come when, like a doting father, I’ll have to allow this beloved
artifact out into the wider world. The good news is, now that the inevitable
has finally occurred I can honestly say I’m largely satisfied with the roads
WATCHMEN has taken.