Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Watchmen

Written by Zachary Martin
 Active ImageAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen has been heralded by everyone from Time Magazine, to Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz as a masterwork of postmodern story telling. Given the book’s renown, the task of adapting it to film is an unenviable one with little room for error. Moore’s flawless use of meta-text, pop cultural allusions, and a labyrinth of fictitious historical narratives, mean any movie seeking to bring the text to life must figure out a similar way of commenting on its own process and place within a collective cultural imagination, all the while telling a story.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel Watchmen has been heralded by everyone from Time Magazine, to Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz as a masterwork of postmodern story telling. Given the book’s renown, the task of adapting it to film is an unenviable one with little room for error. Moore’s flawless use of meta-text, pop cultural allusions, and a labyrinth of fictitious historical narratives, mean any movie seeking to bring the text to life must figure out a similar way of commenting on its own process and place within a collective cultural imagination, all the while telling a story. Director Zack Snyder (300, Dawn of the Dead) made every effort to stay true to Moore’s vision with his adaptation of Watchmen. Visually, the movie can be stunning, harsh, and even humorous, but ultimately in Snyder’s hands, the story becomes too one dimensional, suffering under the glare of effects.

Set in a 1985 urban America not all that fantastic from our own save for a few oddities, Watchmen explores the topic of superheroes and what their place would be in the real world. Richard Nixon has been president since 1969, America has won the Vietnam War, and superheroes (or vigilantes since there isn’t always a clear line between the two) exist, but have seen better days since masked avenging was outlawed in the late seventies. In the wake of the brutal murder of one of the original superheroes (the extremely flawed Comedian/Edward Blake) and an impending nuclear war with Russia, the Watchmen are drawn back into action as much from their sworn duty to protect the human race as their own narcissism. But as the final hour draws near, the Watchmen discover that the enemy they seek is, in fact, one of their own and saving the world ultimately means choosing the lesser of two evils.

As a group, the Watchmen lack any real superpowers with the exception of Dr. Manhattan/Jonathan Osterman who, due to a freak accident at a nuclear test site in the ‘50s, has attained god-like powers over the laws of physics (presumably in exchange for the ability to understand human emotions—in particular those of his girlfriend, the superhero Silk Spectre II/Laurie Juspeczyk). As the story unfolds, we learn how each character relates to the other and their reasons for becoming masked avengers. Silk Spectre II inherits the role from a mother who couldn’t conceive of any other career path for a daughter too loyal to disappoint her. Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II has his own vague, liberal idea that he is saving people. He’s the penultimate “do-gooder.” Rorschach/Walter Kovacs sees the world only in terms of good vs. evil and sets out to punish all evil with very little consideration for the judicial process, while Ozymandias/Adrian Veidt, the smartest, richest man in the world (imagine Bill Gates fighting crime) just knows better than everyone else.

To give credit where credit is due, Snyder knows his Watchmen. Though there are some disappointing changes, for the most part he stays loyal to the book, only deviating toward the end. It isn’t that the changes ruin the story (the problem may even be that Snyder is too loyal), more that they reduce the story to a single narrative that cracks as it attempts to do too many things at once. The significance of crucial events and the development of important characters suffer from the need to keep the movie under three hours, leaving viewers with the impression that Watchmen is just a movie about superheroes (albeit fascinatingly dysfunctional ones) who try to save the world but can’t. This would be interesting if Snyder could have figured out a way to tell us why we should care about them. Ultimately though, the movie has trouble standing on its own without having read the book, making it a tough sell to anyone but fans.

Share this post