Who watches Watchmen whilst reading Watchmen? or, ‘This is kind of turning into a comic blog.’

by TheLitCritGuy

ThePageBoy’s journal. April 2nd 2012

Rom-com found in alley this morning. Reviewer’s footprint on DVD case. The blogs are extended gutters, full of unread posts and comment threads that nobody cares for. One day, all the readers will drown in a flood of mediocre criticism that foams up around their broadband capacity and all the trolls will drown. All those with tumblr accounts and the people who play Farmville will look up and shout, ‘Please don’t review Watchmen!’

And I’ll look down and whisper….


So seeing last week as I reviewed the, frankly, fantastic V for Vendetta I hit upon a small problem. In the run up to me publishing the column I was promoting it on Twitter and was asked when I was going to do Watchmen and basically replied with ‘not any time soon.’ More fool me, due to a combination of work and other commitments I find myself falling a little behind and I needed something to write about so here we are. Well done Internet, as this generations equivalent of the spoiled child, you always get what you want.

If you haven’t been paying attention to this blog (which I realise looking at my traffic stats is a hefty proportion of the world) then you may not have picked up on the fact that I really REALLY like this comic. In terms of complexity, inter-textuality and stretching the boundaries of the form I can think of nothing that compares to it. If you haven’t read it, go ahead, click over to Amazon right now and order it. Do it. Go on, you can trust me. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, Watchmen is basically an alternative history. In a  version of 1985 where Richard Nixon won a third term, where the Cold War with the Russians has become dangerously close to destroying the entirety of humanity and where former masked vigilantes are struggling with the burdens and pressures of trying to be a hero in a bleak dark and dangerous world. Now, I’m simplifying massively here but the plot is basically the same tired cliché of ‘save the world’ but the way this is done makes it possibly the best comic ever written.

Essentially, and in a stroke of complete genius, the destruction of the world is used as the frame for a nuanced and sophisticated exploration of how these people are trying to save us all. There is Rorschach, the man whose brand of justice is based upon the idea of punishing the wicked with a violent fervour not seen since Patrick Batemen took a nice girl out for dinner and a chainsaw. There is the genius Ozymandias, man who believes he is so much above the common man that he can literally be the salvation of the race. There is the tragic Dr Manhattan who through a terrible accident is blessed with the powers of a God, but has to watch as his disconnect from humanity becomes so great that he struggles to see why life even matters. There is the Comedian, a man with a name laden with heavy irony – full of moral certainty  and a nihilism that  the only logical thing to do is laugh at the absurdity of it all. Finally the Night Owl and Silk Spectre – two people, who for differing reasons attempt to just do the best they can. These are not your usual superheroes; the psychological profiles that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons weave are breathtakingly complex. The plot revolves around this, showing the flaws and the struggles of trying to save the world, culminating in a horrific plan that murder half the population of New York.

For those who haven’t read the book (I told you, go order it) I will be getting in to areas that will include spoilers so consider this your warning. Firstly though lets talk about the film, released in 2009 after being trapped in development Hades for a decade or more with even the great and completely bonkers director Terry Gilliam declaring it ‘unfilmable.’ Zach Snyder on the other hand, disagreed and whilst the film performed well at the box office it divided the critics fiercely.

So, lets start with the good. Snyder is a man with some really competent aesthetic skills. This may sound like I’m damning with faint praise here but it is a very impressive job that’s done. The world the film evokes is expertly done, the design and the cinematography have the same hyper-realist edge that 300 did and it works for the most part, very well indeed. The establishment of the film’s world is something that the team behind it should feel incredibly proud of, for a reason that I suspect many of you will find a little silly at first. I am referring to, of course, the awesome credit sequence. Yes, that’s right the bit of the movie where they give the important people a chance to see their name on the silver screen. It is used perfectly as a chance to present snap-shots of the world the story inhabits, fleshing it out and bringing to life without any need for boring exposition or even any dialogue at all. The use of Bob Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A-Changin’ is a master-stroke and choosing to base the shots on extracts from part of the text of Watchmen is a stroke of adaptation genius that someone deserves major credit for. (Geddit!! sorry…)

The casting is by and large really good too, Patrick Wilson gives the film an emotional core that ordinary viewers can relate to, Jackie Earle Haley is bloody terrifying and Matthew Goode is pitch perfect as the messianic monster of the piece. Special kudos have to go to Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan who gives the doctor both power and a hear-breaking distance from the rest of humanity.

So it looks great, the actors are great and the story is based closely on the source, thus we have a good adaptation, right?

Well..Here’s the thing. I want to love this movie, I really do. And there are parts of the film I really like. A lot. But this doesn’t quite work as an adaptation.  This isn’t a slam on anyone by the way, I agree with Terry Gilliam that this is unfilmable. I will only be touching on a couple of points but here is where the spoilers come in so…look away now if necessary.

Firstly is a problem that has become something of a trend and thus I will name…Cool shit syndrome. Now, this is where a director sees something in his source material that is really cool and then decides to put it in to his film regardless of context, for the best example of this I’ve ever seen thus far please turn to my review of Daredevil. The point is one that I can’t believe has to be explained to be people in a creative industry, namely that everything in a work of fiction is there by choice. Stuff doesn’t just happen in a comic because it looks cool; the iconography and aesthetics of comics are deliberate, so that when stuff happens it is cool for a reason. Now, the film is not the worst offender of this type, I mean it isn’t a Michael Bay movie but there are moments watching this where I thought to myself, ‘this is only here because people thought viewers would think it was cool.’ Now I have no problem with cool stuff going down; what I worry about is if that the only reason it is there is for how it looks. Because that is really dumb.

Secondly, Alan Moore syndrome. Studios! Stop trying to make Alan Moore’s work into films! They are clearly supposed to be in the form that they are; in fact, much of the brilliance in Watchmen comes from the use of form. Things like panels, background clues, motifs and tropes that are repeated are essential and work best in sequential art not in film. The rigid form of the 12 chapters works in the comic to add cohesion to the pages narrative and give time and space to flesh out characters. Play a game once you’ve read the book, go and watch the film and I swear you’ll be able to mark off where the film moves through chapter. It feels bitty and fragmented and whilst the bits are great to watch they end up as just bits.

Thirdly and this one is important. It is possible to copy the plot and action of the original source but miss the philosophical reasoning used. (Go away and read my V for Vendetta review if you don’t get that…Sorry, I’ve been very needy in this column) Let me explain… The plan of the villain in both the film and the book is broadly the same, uniting the world against an enemy in order to prevent the nuclear war. In the film, the villains plan is to blame Dr Manhattan for a series of huge explosions that kills millions to save the rest of the world from destroying itself. In Watchmen Alan Moore takes a different route, instead of using another character as the fall guy it turns out that the villain has created a psychic monster, a form of evil beyond the limits of human imagination and comprehension.

Let me summarise; in the film the enemy who unities the world is a man who can blow things up. In the graphic novel, the enemy that unities humanity is an enemy that is so terrifying you can’t understand it or it will drive you insane. The film feels a little less impressive somehow, no? The graphic novel’s way of dealing with this also closes the huge gaping plot hole the film wants you to not notice. Answer me this. Why does The Comedian visit his mortal enemy in the film? Er….coming up with nothing? Try this one. How did The Comedian find out about the evil plan? Er……. What does The Comedian say the evil plan is? Er………………..

Whereas in the graphic novel, The Comedian comes across the island that is filled with the people creating this nightmare of evil and realising the repercussions, knows that people are going to die. Crucially, The Comedian has his visage of cynicism  shattered when he realises that he doesn’t know where he stands upon it. Now that I’ve explained it, the film looks more and more like it doesn’t quite get it right.

So please, film types – pay attention. Stop trying to adapt Alan Moore’s books. Just read them instead.