Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is one of the greatest graphic novels ever published. Released in 1985-1986, it—along with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—forever turned the world upside down with radical, mature looks at the concepts that had underpinned the superhero genre. Watchmen is perhaps the more challenging of the two, and for years, there was talk of making a movie of it, but the project stalled in large part because nobody could really figure out how to do it. The story, a sprawling mixture of murder-mystery, character study, genre parody and intermingled narrative was written by Moore specifically to defy motion-picture adaptation. Movies, Moore wrote, deliver information at a fixed rate of 32 frames a second, whereas stories on a page can be taken in at all kinds of speeds and orders. That his masterpiece was considered unadaptable never seemed to bother Moore one bit. One might even imagine he kind of got off on the idea.

That is, until Zack Snyder, fresh off his successes on Dawn of the Dead and 300, took on the impossible project and created a movie that is nowhere near the masterpiece that its source material is, but it does as good a job of bringing the source material to screen as could ever have been done. In a way, Snyder was the perfect guy for the job. Snyder has noted that he actually doesn’t have a lot of investment in conventional superhero stories, an attitude very much at home within Watchmen, which was itself a deconstruction of a genre that had never before been deconstructed.

The story takes place in an alternate history 1985, where Nixon survived Watergate and remained in power forever, perhaps kept there by deteriorating relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that have left the nuclear doomsday clock at a minute before midnight. Meanwhile, the various superheroes who once prowled the streets looking for crime to that have all been driven into retirement by government decree, or have simply become government agents. When one hero-turned-agent is brutally murdered in his own home, some other heroes come out of retirement to find out what happened, in case some maniac is going around, knocking off old costumes. What they discover along the way is a plot far bigger and more terrifying than just some kind of old-school revenge. It is a plot to save the world by trying to destroy it, the kind of thing that is either the work of a madman or a genius, depending on how well it works.

Watchmen is a mixed bag for me. Snyder’s direction clearly shows that he was by no means done with the kind of slo-mo violence that filled so much of 300, and he cannot help but extend fight scenes as much as he dares, ultimately making them violent spectacle for the sake of violent spectacle. It looks terrific, but it kind of misses the point of the story. Likewise, the washed-out color scheme of the move was a curious choice, given the weirdly vibrant palette of the source material, which is in its way as distinctive as Moore’s writing or Gibbons’ lines. Snyder still made a deeply faithful adaptation, but when the fault lines between his vision and Moore’s appear, the overall effort suffers.

I will say this about Watchmen: one of my big problems with movies based on comic books is that they often feel like just that: movies that reference comic books, but never manage to translate that magic from the page to the screen. That weakness becomes a strength in Watchmen, which imagines a more nine-panel past (captured in a brilliant opening sequence set to “The Times, They Are a-Changin’” but now dwells in a bleak present where superheroes themselves have been written off as a ridiculous redundancy. What’s worse, the heroes of Watchmen know that about themselves, which makes their decision to come out retirement all the more poignant. This crazy gig is all they have left, even if the world has no need for it any longer.

The plot they are trying to stop reinforces this cruel reality beyond the point of no return, and even though there are still moments of heroism for our characters here, they are trying to hold back the sea; something has been put into motion so much bigger than they are, they really can’t stop it. Except one of them can. Or at least, he thinks he can. And when he threatens to reveal to the world secrets that could undo the manner in which world war has been averted, he knows he is sealing his fate. Confronted not by another villain but by a fellow hero, we see that it has taken the sacrifice of a lot of innocent people to save the world. And to keep it saved, it will require the sacrifice of one more. That last sacrifice—the destruction of a hero who might be crazy, but who knows falsehood when he sees it—is Watchmen’s moment of truth. This is a movie about who the heroes are behind their masks. As the movie ends with a final, fatal, unmasking, we can no longer ignore that not every good guy is a hero, and not every hero is a good guy.

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