Comic Book Villain: WATCHMAN

Posted by & filed under , , .

Originally published at Truly Disturbing on August 31, 2012

With the new MAN OF STEEL coming out next summer in 2013, many curious minds are wondering what director Zack Snyder is going to do with Superman. Is he going to copy and paste his favorite scenes like filmmaker Bryan Singer did with SUPERMAN RETURNS? Or is Snyder going to something totally new and different? The only way to answer that question is to pick apart his previous comic-to-film adaptation, WATCHMEN.

What author Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons have created in WATCHMEN is a rare masterpiece. The comic is a satiric take on the superhero concept, depicting the costumed champions as more flawed human beings. Some public heroes are actually closeted homosexuals, afraid to reveal who they really are. In the nonlinear narrative, a group of crime-fighters are called out of retirement when one of their own is found murdered. If you really dig into the basic plot, this is really about a serial killer hunting down superheroes. What screenwriters, David Hayter and Alex Tse, did was turn the storyline into an action-packed thriller.

If you have seen the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and SUCKER PUNCH, viewers already know Snyder is fascinated with hyper-realism. The audience jumps right into the opening sequence, when The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) fights for his life as he is viciously beaten down by his killer. After the Comedian’s death, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) believes someone is hunting after costumed crime-fighters. Rorschach’s fellow ex-comrades, Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman) and Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) do not believe anything about his conspiracy theory. As another crime-fighter is taken down, the god-like Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has to prevent nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union.

One of the best parts in the movie is Doctor Manhattan’s origin tale. The snappy editing between Crudup’s voice-over narration and the back-story are terrifically paced. This is the best example of a word-for-word and shot-for-shot translation from the comic to the big screen. Though Rorschach’s origin is shortened, the raw intensity of Haley’s twisted performance steals the show. Haley’s standout scene comes about when Rorschach unexpectedly finds himself in prison and has to defend himself against the inmates.

The main difference between the comic and movie is the climatic conclusion. When all is revealed, Ozymandias’ master plan was to create a large-scale catastrophe. In order to bring about world peace, Ozymandias has to murder millions of innocent lives. World War III is abruptly prevented because of the disaster. In the comic, the disaster is caused by a supposedly imminent alien invasion. In the movie, Dr. Manhattan is the culprit behind the devastating attack on New York City. Ozymandias frames Dr. Manhattan and turns him into the enemy of the public, government, and military.

When seeing the movie for the first-time, this critic did not like this major change. If so much of the story is left intact, why take away this plot point? But after watching the movie many times, I began to understand the difference between film and comics. There are some things that can only work in comic book form. If you bring in aliens into a movie like this, especially in the third act, you’re definitely bringing in another character, and going way over-the-top with the premise. For the film, it makes more sense to bring the story around, keep it grounded within the established characters, and choose Dr. Manhattan as the perpetrator.

Thankfully, the real ending of the WATCHMEN is the same. Rorschach’s journal, which reveals Ozymandia’s master plan, ends up in the hands of a young newspaper journalist. Will the journalist decide to publish everything that was inside the book? This open-ending made the studio executives very nervous, especially during these post 9/11 times. Imagine if someone knew what really happened before the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Would you reveal such a thing to the public? You have to remember the WATCHMEN comic was published during the mid-1980s. The themes behind Alan Moor’s writing was to reflect contemporary anxieties. Though the ending is not specifically a social commentary about 9/11; the themes just become more significant.

When the film was originally released, this critic saw a review from AT THE MOVIES, with guest critics, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. During their discussion, Lyons and Mankiewicz said they were given the comic before seeing the movie. As part of their promotion, the studio was handing out the WATCHMEN comic to the critics before they saw the movie. It probably would have been helpful if there was a critic who hadn’t read the comic before watching the movie. As a filmmaker and a fan of the comic, Snyder was really aiming for a new generation, an audience who has never read the comic. If they like the movie, these new fans will go back and look for the original source material. As a comic book fan, so much is condensed and subplots are left out, I would have actually preferred a television mini-series.

Difficult to adapt, WATCHMEN was always going to be a no-win situation for filmmaker Zack Snyder. In all fairness, Snyder put in his best effort and made the best film possible, but he couldn’t please everyone, especially the hardcore fan base. Maybe this is the reason why you need two directors to take on a Superman movie.