If you’re not familiar with the source material then approaching a film like Watchmen can be a daunting prospect for both critics and film buffs alike. In both cases you have to question whether or not you should read the source first and how that might affect your opinion, which in turn affects how you can discuss it with the many fans it already has. I had this dilemma with Watchmen, a name which until a few years ago I had never even heard of and consequently up until last week I had certainly never read. The sumptuous visuals and deft choice of soundtrack and dialogue found in the trailers for Watchmen had sufficiently whetted my appetite for the film, so prior to watching Zack Snyder’s adaptation I sped through Alan Moore’s original work so as to apprise myself fully of the material. I feel it’s worth informing you, the readers of this, as while I cannot be classed as a fan I am familiar with the source and can make comparisons where necessary. While it’s not essential reading for those looking to enjoy the film, the graphic novel does, as I will explain, help flesh things out and in my case it certainly changed my expectations from Watchmen being a superhero movie to more of a murder mystery with superhero leanings.
In an alternate 1985 United States, Nixon is still in the White House, superheroes are part of the fabric of everyday society, and the Doomsday Clock--which charts the USA's tension with the Soviet Union--moves closer to midnight...
When one of his former colleagues (known as The Comedian) is murdered, the outlawed but no less determined masked vigilante Rorschach sets out to uncover a plot to kill and discredit all past and present superheroes. As he reconnects with his former crime-fighting legion--a disbanded group of retired superheroes, only one of whom has true powers--Rorschach glimpses a wide-ranging and disturbing conspiracy with links to their shared past and catastrophic consequences for the future.
Straight off I’ll say that Watchmen is a slick, visually exciting film that elaborates on the action and spectacle but compromises a little on the character development. The opening scene plays out the murder of The Comedian in detail, extending it to a choreographed fight between two exceptionally strong individuals which culminates in some brutal yet often beautifully composed moments. Some are direct from the panels of the graphic novel, others are entirely new to the film because said murder is never actually played out in the source. We merely see the aftermath and the final moment of The Comedian’s life, which in turn sets the events of the story in motion. This example of the action being extended can be found elsewhere in the film, though at all times I have to give credit to Snyder for choosing the moments wisely and more importantly, staging them very effectively. After all, why have them if you aren’t going to do them right? Some of the editing is a little jumpy, but the use of slow motion and close-ups are excellent while the violence is never so visceral as to be gruelling, nor toned down to the point of it being unbelievable. Getting the look and feel ‘just right’ is something that is done well throughout, with the set design, costumes and overall look creating a cohesive world that comes to life effectively on the screen. The all-important special effects within the film are also exceptional, utterly seamless and often breathtaking. In fact, the most glaring effects work in the entire film is the prosthetic nose on Richard Nixon, which I suspect is probably deliberate and something of a gag.
Even the opening credits sequence comes over as a master class in design and execution, beautifully composed and very striking with its moments captured in time motif surely a treat for fans of the novel, featuring a wealth of little nods to some of the finer details that couldn’t be worked in elsewhere, or were simply just there in the background of the graphic novel in the first place. It’s a fine opening montage that sets the tone, and it is one that is maintained throughout.
Moving beyond the more technical aspects though, where Watchmen the film differs considerably to Watchmen the graphic novel is in the portrayal and exploration of these vigilante masked figures as simple human beings. In both the novel and the film we meet them through Rorschach’s investigation and find them dealing with their fall from grace in the public eye and newfound work-a-day lives. The graphic novel achieves much of what it does in this area through simple repetition, chipping away at the characters as we follow their actions, get caught up in their thought processes and witness their origin stories. In the film it is this repetition that is understandably lost, cut for time, or I should say, compressed, to be more accurate. A section of the novel that might cover nearly an entire chapter is distilled into its rawest form for the screen, maintaining the necessary elements that keep the viewer informed and afloat of the main plot progression, but not necessarily seeing these figures worn down as we do in the graphic novel. Couple this with the embellishment found in the action sequences and the Watchmen in the film appear far more as superheroes than they ever do in the graphic novel. While it may not please the hardcore fan base, for this viewer (and I think for obvious reasons) it makes for a far more entertaining film and one that manages to balance the action, investigation elements and storytelling with more success than a straight adaptation might have.
Some of this compression does result in a few glaring changes that for the most part will only be noticeable to those who have read the source material. These are changes that, while not affecting the outcome of a particular plot strand, do sacrifice some smaller details that for example make Jon Osterman briefly look somewhat idiotic (as opposed to stupid in love as he is in the novel) for bringing the accident upon himself that leads to him becoming Dr. Manhattan. This example however does not adversely affect the film’s flow, it all appears natural and ‘uncompressed’ to the uninitiated. An example where this is not the case would be Ozymandias just blurting out his origin story without so much as a prompt, lacking all of the grace it should have for such an important character. One final example is Rorschach in prison-ordered therapy, a hardened gruff character he plays with the psychiatrist at first but then spills his guts (and his origin story) just a little too quickly. The latter is actually one of the best examples of compression within the film, as the graphic novel dedicates an entire chapter to this whereas the film covers it in what is probably less than 15 minutes. In both cases however it remains true that the essential points to these scenes are achieved, somewhat swiftly maybe, but they are achieved and while the abruptness may catch some viewers off guard and pull them out of the illusion the momentary lapse is always fleeting as the story and imagery that is found in the sequences that follow always manage to pull you back in.
Even with their compressed origin stories and less time dedicated to their nuances the leading characters all remain compelling, and I think importantly just like the novel there is a certain ambiguity to the extent of their ‘powers’ (or lack thereof). Both a comparison to the novel and a worthy point for those not familiar with the material is how the character of Laurie feels considerably different, less bitter about her past as a masked vigilante, only once or twice directly saying how she was forced unwillingly into the life by her mother, and seemingly far more gung-ho about slipping back into her latex costume and resuming her duties. Indeed, while much is left out in the transition to the screen, I found her character and the relationship that blossoms between her and Daniel far more interesting and affecting in the film. Rorschach may have the darkly cool, funny monologues and flippant dialogue, but it is the built up sexual frustration shared between Daniel (Patrick Wilson) and Laurie (Malin Akerman) and the way that is brought to life through looks and motions on the screen that will get the bulk of the laughs from most audiences. The relationship that has obviously been there for quite some time but comes to fruition on the screen is one of the highlights in the film, boasting a somewhat innocent charm that makes their scenes together a particular joy whereas in the novel I have to say I found them to be much less engaging. It probably also helps a little that Daniel’s costume has been toned down in the film, looking less like a kid’s school project and more like a caped crusader (think along the lines of the changes made to the costumes for the X-Men films).
Talking of caped crusaders, the face and more importantly the voice behind Rorschach’s ever-changing mask is probably one of the most adept casting choices I’ve seen in a long time. Jackie Earle Haley seems to be channelling either Christian Bale as the dark knight himself or screenwriter David Hayter in his role as Solid Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video game series (more specifically the fourth game and its ageing version of the character) with a gravelly deep tone that suits his inner monologues perfectly. While he may not break as many bones in the film version his character is every bit the cynical and quite sadistic vigilante he is in the novel, and it is a few later scenes with him that are no doubt part of the reason Watchmen has received an 18 certificate (though I can think of at least a couple of other more likely reasons given the BBFC’s reaction to sex and sexual violence in films). Touching on some of the other characters briefly, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is excellent as The Comedian, a character you mainly see through flashbacks and therefore almost always exaggerated to a certain extent; he is the character that gets the ball rolling and is a potent figure whenever he is on screen. Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan is given the unenviable task of playing a character who is not only in full make-up all of the time, but has no eyes (not in the regular sense anyway) and speaks in a largely monotone fashion. He plays it well enough that when the character does have a revelation or a strong reaction there is enough range there. In short he meets the expectations of the character seen on the page, a somewhat detached lonely existence that is only anchored by those around him.
Attempting to wrap things up, I need to discuss the ending, but first of all I will say there is one potentially damaging moment about half-way through the film which could give the whole thing away to those unfamiliar with the source and therefore ruin some of the mystery. It’s a scene that is perfectly staged in the novel and raises absolutely no suspicion, but in the film it is quite different and very transparent. Moving on though, the ending is hard to discuss without spoilers, but not impossible. It is by far the biggest change from novel to film, but like all of the other changes, the outcome is the same. For my money (and again I’ll refer the fans back to the point that I’ve only read the source novel once) the changes are mostly for the better, with the ‘threat’ used in the novel somewhat unbelievable both in conception and reaction. I will concede that much like the Cold War mentality the novel and film is steeped in, the era in which everything takes place also makes the reaction in the novel a little easier to comprehend, but for a modern audience I feel the changes made for the film result in a much more plausible finale. That it ties in nicely with the Cold War nuclear threat that prevails throughout also helps. Looking beyond the final set-piece however the closing curtain as it were is identical to the novel, so like Dr. Manhattan would say, nothing ever ends.
Revelling in the spectacle, be it through special effects or drenching the scene in atmosphere Watchmen is constantly thrilling, combining detailed set and costume design, superlative special effects and of course some wonderful dialogue that is for the most part lifted straight from the pages of the graphic novel. Snyder combines all of this with excellent casting and an inspired soundtrack that drifts between song choices every bit as iconic as the visuals and an original score that is subtle but effective. There are lapses in the substantial 2hour 43minute running time, due both to some changes made to the source material and the often strict adherence to said material, but the film always bounces back and will no doubt reward multiple viewings due to the level of detail found throughout. It’s suitability to a wide audience is being questioned by some, though I think the biggest problem has nothing to do with not understanding the plot (it’s all rather simple at the end of the day) but in the expectations viewers have of more traditional comic book movies, something this is not.