Watchmen is a graphic novel that hardly needs any sort of introduction. Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ 1986 comic is perhaps the most celebrated comic book ever created and since its first publishing run, has never lost its power both in the comic world and in the broader world of literature.
Alan Moore’s tale of broken morality, deconstruction of superheroes, and of the comic medium itself, is just as good for its narrative, as it is for the way it reflects and examines politics of the 1980s (despite being set in an alternative world).
Originally meant to be a new line for DC Comics’ recent purchase of the Charleston characters, after some encouragement from DC, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons created new characters–ones that would act as an analogue for the traditional superhero characters.
It’s hard to say something about the comic that hasn’t already been said, or it would be so easy to say something that any comic fan worth their salt would roll their eyes and say, “I knew that.”
Nevertheless, I still think it’s worth discussing because the conversation around art shouldn’t go away, even if something becomes so impenetrable as the “holy grail of the medium.”
Largely, where Watchmen succeeds is in characterization. Although the piece can be considered successful from nearly all fronts, the marriage of Moore’s talent for labyrinthian-style plots and Dave Gibbons’ attention to detail in his art, creating dynamic visuals with depth is a complete match made in heaven.
Together, they work to fill out the world and themes in even the tiniest corner of the frame. Moore’s attention to characters and clear goals in his work is where the book shines brightest. These are flawed and human characters. The idea of the morally upright, always-doing-the-right-thing superheroes is called into question as the heroes have to deal with sex criminals, geo-politics, and even deal with their own insecurities surrounding their sexuality, principals, and past lives lost among their heroics.
Nostalgia is a problem for characters to either be swallowed up in or to overcome.
It’s important to note this book was seen as one of the comics that made comics “grow up.” I don’t entirely love this type of phrasing because it suggests proceeding this book wasn’t mature stories, which even discounts some of the work that Alan Moore was already doing up to that point.
I will concede this book was one of the first astounding pieces of work that really hit the mainstream. It dealt with sex and violence, though not overtly and gratuitous, but there was purpose to the writing.
Moore didn’t use these things as a way to cover up the lack of depth as writers/artists Rob Lienfeld and Todd McFarlane would in the ’90s. The supeheroes weren’t just “damaged” badasses who acted super violent; they were complex, morally grey, and their actions weren’t glorified in a meaningless way.
The action scenes in the book make up a very small amount of the entire graphic novel. We really only see the horrors of violence visualized in mass bodies and pools of blood once we confront the actions of our supposed “heroes,” which Dave Gibbons brings to life in a haunting way.
I could spend the entire time here writing about how great the comic is and still not get away near to talking about the film.
Needless to say, this made a huge impact on the comics industry as a whole and is still seen as arguably the greatest comic ever made.
Enter Zack Snyder
Watchmen seemed destined for a film adaptation the moment it hit trades and never fell out of print. It didn’t take long for filmmakers to take a crack at the dense material and transfer it to the screen. Filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass took a pass at it, taking various approaches (Greengrass’ version had it set in a modern-day setting).
It definitely appeared this comic was not adaptable for the screen. Until a filmmaker named Zack Snyder, who just finished directing another successful adaptation of a graphic novel came on board.
His 2009 adaptation has garnered a bit of cult following over the years. Despite being a box-office disappointment and facing mixed critical reception, Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen has proven to be able to stick around for the long haul. There is still a vocal fanbase for the film (probably assisted in popularity since his time working with other DC characters).
Snyder’s film, like his previous work adapting Frank Miller‘s 300, is painstaking in the way it attempts to bring the visuals of the book to life. With such devotion, he also sticks very close to the story of the novel.
Snyder is a filmmaker properly known for his visual instinct and strong stylized and authorial voice. He has a loud and passionate fanbase and I can understand much of his appeal.
Even though I wouldn’t consider myself a Snyder fanboy by any stretch of imagination, I do look forward to his new films and Watchmen is an example of why I give his new projects the benefit of the doubt. I appreciate a filmmaker who can work within the blockbuster field and not get his voice lost within the overwhelming responsibilities of multi-million dollar budgets and studio politics (even if I don’t tend to like their movies).
Snyder tries to stick as close to the story and paneling of the comic book by lifting shots wholesale from the comic itself. This creates some of Snyder’s best filmmaking. Often his films live and die by the quality of the story upon which it is based. Dawn of the Dead and Man is Steel are among his stronger films and both had solid foundations to lay his visual eyes upon. Although neither one are flawless, they ring true with fans.
What better foundation to lay your bricks on than Alan Moore? With his almost cult-like devotion to the dialogue and images of Dave Gibbons, we get a mostly intact version of Moore’s plot. The winding conspiracy intermingling with questions of power and the validity of superheroes and sounds. At first glance, it appeared just like the book.
Once we get to the moments like Doctor Manhattan’s origin story, we truly get to see Snyder’s strengths play out.
It always seems strange to me when fans of his claim him to be “a grounded filmmaker,” one who makes “realistic superhero films” when quite often his films do the opposite at times.
Snyder likes to mythologize his characters, make them seem larger-than-life giving them deity-like appeal. He wants them to be truly exceptional (more on that later). The exploration and origin story of Doctor Manhattan works to these strengths. It’s fleeting moments where every image needs to have maximum impact and coming from a background in music video, this smaller piece of storytelling suites his strengths.
The Characters’ Rorschach Test
This is also when the film’s failures come into play as well. Snyder did an exceptional job on many fronts here, clearly making it with more reverence than any other filmmaker might. But, his voice clashes with the film’s material more often than not.
With Snyder’s larger than life framing of his heroes, he often forgets the intimacy and roots of the story. The idea behind Watchmen is that these are everyday people–we look behind the mask, the super heroics aren’t grand or operatic (Doctor Manhattan being the exception). Quite often the fights take place in just one panel, but Snyder doesn’t see the story the same way Moore does.
He gets the plotting right but his style makes everything “cool” and “badass,” which is seen as his camera lingers on the violence–not for moments of horror but because of style.
This is why there is some cognitive dissonance with his framing of the Rorschach character. In the comic, there is more ambiguity about how we are supposed to look at him. He is far more repulsive when you read him on the page. But once you give him Jackie Earle Haley‘s terrific performance and Snyder’s superb framing, now he is a badass superhero who fights for justice.
This would be fine if Snyder didn’t also keep most of the dialogue intact for the movie. The movie wants you to love Rorschach, but then the dialogue feels out of place for the way Snyder’s camera forces us to feel about him. Lines like “Beneath me, this awful city, it screams like an abattoir (meaning slaughterhouse) of retarded children,” don’t attach themselves well to a badass superhero.
You can argue Snyder is attempting to convey the same moral ambiguity as Moore and I’m sure that is his ultimate goal…maybe. However, his film language doesn’t match those convictions. Take, for instance, his introduction where this line is used. The camera lingers on him, the music stings, and we push in as he breaks through the police caution tape. Rorschach essentially poses for the camera before turning his head to investigate. This is doesn’t feel like ambiguity. This feels like a filmmaker who loves this character and wants you to feel a certain way about him.
The Ayn Rand Contradiction
When you break down all of Snyder’s whimsy with filmmaking, I being to wonder if Snyder was the best person for the job? He is attempting to be as faithful as possible to the original material, which is clearly witnessed in the ‘Ultimate Cut.’ Some of his best moments as a filmmaker, despite a few thoughtful plot tweaks, exist in this movie.
Its no secret that one of Zack Snyder’s big influences is Ayn Rand. He has been attempting to make his own adaption of The Fountainhead for years (and if you thought Snyder was good with subtext his explanations of the book aren’t going to help your case).
Most of his superheroes are put through a Radian filter, made to look like the self-idealized man with many of his characters following in the footsteps of Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.
Essentially, objectivism is a philosophy that rejects altruism.
This primarily deals with exceptionalism, unchecked and unregulated capitalism, and people living for their own “morale” self interest. Objectivism, in my estimation, has been harmful to western politics but that’s a different discussion.
Another writer whose influenced by Rand is Frank Miller. This is why Snyder tends to work best with the 300-style characterization or when he is adapting a Frank Miller Batman for Batman V Superman, which may be why so many feel uncomfortable with his Superman. These characters and stories work hand in hand with his main influences.
Moore has no such muse, and even went as far as to describe Rand’s philosophy this way,
I have to say I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy laughable…It was a ‘white supremacist dreams of the master race,’ burnt in an early-20th century form. Her ideas didn’t really appeal to me, but they seemed to be the kind of ideas that people would espouse, people who might secretly believe themselves to be part of the elite, and not part of the excluded majority
To engrain a Rand influence into a piece and work that is decidedly standing in direct opposition (from an authorial standpoint) feels like a misstep. And no, I’m not calling Zack Snyder a white supremacist, but it is worth noting the two opposing authorial philosophies.
It’s unmistakable the way Snyder frames his characters in the form of objectivism. Rorschach, in particular, is framed in a form of exceptionalism. This is where the film adaptation suffers the most. The characters is one of the many areas where the book succeeds but the movie is often confused in how to tackle them (along with it’s Rob Lienfeld-esque glee for violence).
Should We Watch Watchmen?
Despite these seemingly harsh differences in material, Snyder’s adaptation mostly succeeds in spite of itself. Moore and Gibbons’ material does shine through and the plotting is intact. Snyder’s Watchmen can be a bit messy, and often contradictory in uncomfortable ways, but I do still kind of like it for it’s craft and valiant attempt to stay faithful to the surface level of the story.
The performances are good and the actors are pretty much all well chosen and it is hard to deny the visual sense of crafting an image, sometimes an “empty image” but pretty nonetheless.
Moore’s Watchmen still stands as one of the greatest works in all of comic and graphic novel history. This is a piece so ingrained and revered in the comic and literature world that it hardly seems like it’ll ever be forgotten.
It’s a masterpiece from both the writing and art. A conversation between artists and the medium in which they inhabit and a critique on the very idea of the superhero itself. Nothing I say about the book is going to be news to anyone but if you like the movie and haven’t read the book, I think it’s time to crack it open and discover a whole new world left untouched.