Watching Watchmen
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Zack Snyder's Film

So they finally made a Watchmen movie. I’ve seen it twice. Let me tell you about it. I will try to do it without spoilers, but I can’t promise anything, so be warned.

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Watchmen is not about superheroes.

This is the first thing you need to know if you plan on seeing the movie. If you go in expecting good guys and bad guys, Batmen and Jokers, you’re going to be baffled. The book sent a seismic shock through the comics industry when in came out in 1986, and 23 years later, its pitch-dark vision hasn’t lost any of its punch. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons essentially took Stan Lee’s approach to its logical, nihilistic extreme – Lee gave his superheroes real-world problems, then laid them over fantastical backdrops, but Moore and Gibbons went all the way.

The question Watchmen posits is this: what would costumed heroes really be like? What kind of people would actually dress up as bats or owls and prowl the night, looking for rights to wrong? Well, they’d be disturbed personalities who get off on the rush of violence. They’d be attention-seekers looking for the spotlight. Or they’d be psychopaths with an insanely heightened sense of justice. These are the characters of Watchmen. People crazy enough to think they can turn the tide of human nature. And one of them is crazy enough to think he can save the world.

I bring this up because many reviewers are missing this fundamental point. Some have complained that they don’t know who to root for. Some have supposed that Rorschach, the obviously mentally damaged and hyper-violent vigilante that sets the movie’s plot in motion, is in fact the hero. He’s not. There aren’t any heroes. You’re not supposed to root for any of these people, and if the ending leaves you wondering about the moral compasses of everyone, including your own, then it’s done its job. Watchmen is not about superheroes. It’s about people.

What would costumed heroes be like? Imagine the worst people you know. Now give them anonymity and autonomy – free rein to do whatever they want with no consequences. That’s what they’d really be like.

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So I’ve been dreading a Watchmen movie for about 15 years now.

Part of the reason for this is that Watchmen is defiantly a comic book. It’s not a storyboard, it does not have aspirations towards any other storytelling method. It does not propose ideas beyond its medium, it explores its medium to the fullest with its ideas. The book is partially a commentary on comics from the 1930s to the 1980s, and no matter what, there’s just no way a screen adaptation could (or would) capture that.

The context is just one of those things I had to let go, and I’d been preparing for that for years. But as I heard about the on-and-off plans for this movie over the last decade and a half, I realized there were some things I just couldn’t let go. I really boiled it down to a couple. I mentioned the biggest one above – any attempt to turn these people into heroes would have turned my stomach.

Also, the alternate 1980s setting was sacrosanct, as far as I was concerned. The book pivots on the escalating arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear war always in the background. Only one period in our history gives you that perfect sense of all-consuming dread that Watchmen needs. Pushing it forward in time, making it contemporary, swapping in George W. Bush and the Iraq war – these were all ideas honestly mooted during Watchmen’s long journey to the screen, and I think I pulled a decent percentage of my hair out just reading about them.

Finally, there’s the ending. I’ve said before, I don’t care about the mechanics of it. The morality of it, the theme, is what’s important. The ending of Watchmen is about what it really takes to save the world, and it’s not the superheroic throwdown that the studios were likely expecting. I worried that the ending would be changed, that the deliberately comic-booky tone of the penultimate chapters would be carried through. They’re a feint, you see. A trick, a joke. The messy, complex world of Watchmen cannot have a simplistic ending wrapped in a bow. It just can’t.

Adding to my sense of dread was the seemingly endless succession of terrible Alan Moore screen adaptations. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. From Hell. Constantine. V for Vendetta. Endings changed, characters eviscerated, and in some cases, entire foundational concepts burned at the stake. Alan Moore may be the most thoughtful writer the medium of comics has ever produced, but his on-screen legacy is littered with brain-dead wrecks. (Keanu Reeves as John Constantine? In Los Angeles? Really??)

Moore himself gave up on Hollywood a long time ago. He has asked that his name be removed from adaptations of his works – he can’t stop them, because much of Moore’s output has been for the major companies, who end up owning his books, and can sell the rights to production companies without his consent. He even gives his portion of the movie money to his original collaborators – Eddie Campbell on From Hell, for example, or David Lloyd on V for Vendetta. Moore has no hope that any adaptation will do his work justice, and maybe he’s right to think this way. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be Alan Moore, watching the League movie. I shudder just thinking about it.

But I’m not Moore, and I tried to remain hopeful. The movie passed through hands both talented and not so talented before landing with Zack Snyder, the man who adapted Frank Miller’s 300 a few years ago. This is only Snyder’s third film, but he’s shown a genuine love for the comics medium, and a penchant for remaining faithful to an author’s vision. I had hope.

The cast was announced. Almost entirely unknowns. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. Billy Crudup (the movie’s biggest name) as Dr. Manhattan. Patrick Wilson (who?) as Nite Owl. I started getting excited – Snyder seemed to know that big-name actors would only be distracting for characters this indelible. The trailers began appearing. Dr. Manhattan looked amazing. His clockwork palace on Mars looked exactly right. The Owlship. Rorschach’s shifting mask. Everything was right. I started getting very excited.

I ended up taking four hours off in the middle of the day last Friday to see the movie. As the lights dimmed and the screen turned yellow for the opening credits, I could barely breathe. I was watching Watchmen, and I wasn’t scared. I was thrilled.

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Realistically speaking, I could not have asked for a better Watchmen movie.

That sounds like faint praise, and I don’t mean it as such. This movie is a miracle. Had it been 60 percent faithful to Moore and Gibbons, it would have been impressive. But 99.9 percent faithful is just… amazing. I know Alan Moore will never see this, but he could not have found someone more respectful of his work and his intentions than Zack Snyder. Even in places where the story has been altered, the intent has remained true. Snyder’s not just a fan, he’s practically an acolyte, and I love him for it.

The movie opens with the murder of the Comedian, also known as Edward Blake. It’s a nasty, violent scene, and it sets the tone well. Then we’re off into the most amazing credits sequence I’ve seen in ages – a parade of images that give you the back story of Watchmen brilliantly, set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” There’s a ton of exposition covered in artful silence here, and a number of very important character clues sprinkled throughout. I would have paid full price just to see this sequence again.

And then, Snyder adapts the first six chapters of the book, almost verbatim. It was incredible to watch. Even the tricky fourth chapter, giving Dr. Manhattan’s back story as he reminisces on Mars, is as exact as it could be. I’m sure dozens of screenwriters struggled with this sequence, trying to make its shifting times and settings more accessible for a moviegoing audience. David Hayter and Alex Tse just wrote Moore’s words down, and Snyder essentially shot the comic, nearly panel for panel. And it works brilliantly.

Above all in this first half, Snyder and his screenwriters kept the most important thing front and center – these are not heroes. Rorschach seems like the central character at first, but his intense origin story (truncated a little here) puts him at the fringes, just as he should be. Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) is distant, shallow, and self-obsessed, qualities you wouldn’t expect from a big blue god. (Or maybe you would, which is the point.) Dan Dreiberg (Nite Owl) is flabby and retreating, a middle-aged failure. Laurie Juspeczyk (Silk Spectre) is an emotional mess, living in the shadow of her mother and tired of a life as Jon’s lover.

I could go on, but you get the point. Snyder got everything right. And even though he veers off the track somewhat in the second half, it’s never to the movie’s detriment – he adds only a couple of scenes invented from whole cloth, and does his best to deliver a faithful treatment of even Moore’s less considered moments. It’s a dense book, which makes for a complicated movie, but by the end, you really feel the conflicts of these characters. It’s superbly done.

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The cast is variable, unfortunately. At the top of the heap is Jackie Earle Haley, who simply is Rorschach. I have been terrified of just how Rorschach would come across on screen for years. Would he be cheesy? Would they turn him into a hero? But Haley is amazing. With the constantly-morphing mask on, he has only his voice, but he nails Rorschach’s dispassionate growl. With his mask off, he is simply incredible – he has the character’s detached stare down perfectly. His scenes with the prison psychologist are a highlight, and I was pleased to see that Hayter and Tse rescued Rorschach’s best line – in the book, it’s an offhand recollection written down in the psychologist’s journal, but in the movie, he says it, and delivers it perfectly.

(You will know the line when you hear it. I don’t want to give it away here. Suffice it to say, it caps off the prison cafeteria scene, and it brought gasps and cheers both times I saw the film.)

Billy Crudup is excellent as well. I’d always imagined Dr. Manhattan with a booming, omnipotent voice, but his thin tones work even better – they are bored and disengaged, which Osterman often is, a side effect of omniscience. The special effects team did wonders with this big blue monstrosity, and the best part is, you can still see Crudup at the character’s center. Also excellent was Patrick Wilson, as the schlubby Dreiberg, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as the psychotic Comedian.

But there are two characters I probably would have re-cast. The flaws are not fatal, but they are significant. First is Malin Akerman as Laurie Juspeczyk. To start, she’s just too young to play this part. Her character talks about things she did 15 years ago, and I found myself thinking, “What, when you were eight?” But more than that, Laurie is the emotional center of the movie – so much of this orbits around her feelings, her pain. And I didn’t quite feel that from Akerman. Her big scene on Mars in chapter nine comes off a bit flat, and I didn’t quite buy her love story with Dan, a big part of the second hour.

And then there is Matthew Goode, as Adrian Veidt, a.k.a. Ozymandias. In many ways, Veidt is Watchmen’s most complex character, and Goode’s performance is frustratingly one-note. What I wanted, and didn’t get, was the weight of responsibility Veidt feels. We don’t get any of his sadness, just his confidence. Also, Veidt’s last panel in the book is his one moment of terrified doubt, and I wish we could have seen that in the movie. Goode is also too young to play Ozymandias, and what should be world-weary determinism comes off as brash arrogance. Of all of them, I wish this performance had been different.

Snyder didn’t help matters by faithfully copying one of the missteps of the book – we don’t get to know Adrian very well. He’s sidelined for much of the story, until he steps center-stage. I would have liked an origin story, some sense of why he does what he does. In the book, it’s told in little moments, and in a text piece at the end of chapter 11. The movie keeps the moments, but Goode’s performance doesn’t let us in. Reading the book, we know that Veidt watching the map burn at the first and only meeting of the Crimebusters was a major moment, one that led to his later actions. That’s in the movie, but we don’t really feel the weight of it on Adrian, and I wish we did.

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Do I have problems with the movie? Oh, yeah. As wonderful as it is, there are still some things I’d have done differently, and I expect every fan has his/her own list. Some of mine:

The violence has been ramped up for the film. The book was more suggestive about it, but the movie is very in-your-face, particularly when Dan and Laurie are attacked in an alley. I understand the points Snyder is making, but I fear this scene undermines the characters a bit.

Dr. Manhattan’s big blue penis is on display quite frequently. I get the symbolism, and didn’t really care that much, but I worry that it will be a distraction for moviegoers not as invested in the story as I am.

Speaking of phallic symbols, the other one – President Nixon’s protruding proboscis – is a little too, pardon the expression, on the nose.

The music choices were okay, but pedestrian. Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in particular invites laughs over Dan and Laurie’s sex scene, although those laughs will come anyway once the flamethrower is triggered. (Trust me, it’s funny.) Here’s one they did right, though – see if you can spot Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” played under a key scene.

Carla Gugino’s makeup, as the aging Sally Jupiter, is not very convincing.

The second hour seems to lose its way, as the sense of impending dread fades into the background. In the book, it’s kept front and center with other characters, small parts that didn’t make it into the movie. I like what’s there, and it makes sense to focus on our main characters, but I don’t feel the same sense of movement I do in the book.

The context and subtext is largely missing, which I expected. You wouldn’t really get the idea, watching this movie, why the book made it onto Time Magazine’s list of 100 greatest novels. It doesn’t feel as important without the subtext scattered throughout. And no movie could replicate this book’s impact on comics as a medium and on pop culture, which informs every re-read. Not Snyder’s fault at all, but still.

I can think of more, but I’ll stop there. As you can tell, these are all minor quibbles, not devastating flaws. For every missed step, Snyder took ten that are sure and steady. All in all, I am happy.

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Of course, I have to talk about the ending.

I will try to do so without giving it away, which will be a challenge. For much of its running time, Watchmen seems to be headed for a heroes-and-villains denouement, a Dark Knight-style rumble. The subversion of that expectation is one of Alan Moore’s finest moments, and I have read with dismay as many critics have dismissed the ending as anti-climactic. That, of course, is the entire point – the unexpected events, and the characters’ reactions to them, are the book. And, blessedly, they are the movie too.

Yes, the ending is different. You may have seen the phrase “giant squid” in some reviews, and I can tell you that no such squid appears in the film. What does appear, astonishingly, is something better, something more elegant, that allows Snyder to retain every emotional moment of Moore’s finale. The mechanics are different, but the beats, the themes, the philosophical questions – they are all the same. Snyder and his screenwriters even kept Veidt’s best line, in many ways my favorite in the entire book.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, and I believe it’s true – the new ending is better. It doesn’t pack the same punch as the original, partly because the book’s momentum is lost somewhat in the film’s second hour. But when it happens, it still comes as a fantastic surprise. And every moment after that is perfect. Haley in particular knocks his final scenes out of the park. In the final analysis, how the ending happens doesn’t matter, just that it does. And here, it dovetails with the rest of the plot much more thoroughly.

The first time I saw Watchmen, I was watching with a critical eye, looking for deviations from the book. The ending was a white-knuckle journey for me – I could just see the cop-out coming, the studio-mandated sugar being coated on. And as it unfolded, I slowly relaxed – it wasn’t until an hour or so later that it struck me just how well Snyder had pulled this off. The second time, I sat back and enjoyed it, and I have to tell you, it quite simply works.

It really works.

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Watchmen the film will never be Watchmen the book.

For all the effort Snyder put in capturing moments large and small, the essence of Watchmen can’t be translated to the screen. The story has survived intact, and amazingly, the emotions and themes have as well. But the experience of reading the book is its own thing, one I highly recommend.

Will people who haven’t read the book respond well to the movie? I don’t know. It’s a dense film, and it doesn’t work overtime to make non-believers care. I tried to imagine what I would think had I never encountered these characters or their world before, and I couldn’t do it. But as someone who has read the book, over and over again, I’m deliriously happy with Snyder’s adaptation. Could it have been better? Of course. But it could have been so much worse, too.

After 15 years of worrying about this, I can finally exhale. The Watchmen movie is here, and it’s better than I ever hoped it would be. I expected I would see this once, out of obligation. Now I am making plans to see it a third and fourth time, out of unbridled joy and admiration. Go ahead and watch this Watchmen – while it isn’t the book, much of what I love is here. Thank you, Zack Snyder, for taking such care with this book. It’s just a story about people in costumes, but it’s pretty important to me, and I appreciate it.

Oh, and David Hayter? All is forgiven.

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As a side note, this is why I run my own website. I can’t imagine any publication paying me (or even allowing me) to write more than 3,000 words on the Watchmen movie. Thanks for making it this far. I’m done now.

See you in line Tuesday morning.