A few days ago, HBO released the trailer for their upcoming TV series, Watchmen, based on the characters from Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel of the same name. And it made me want to look back at Zack Snyder’s take on Moore’s masterpiece. Being a huge fan of both the graphic novel and its subsequent movie, here’s my take on Snyder’s version of Watchmen.
There has been a significant amount of debate about whether Watchmen should be regarded as a bad movie or an underrated masterpiece ahead of its time. I prefer to say the latter. And I’ll tell you why.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is regarded as the greatest piece of literature to ever come out of the comic books industry. Watchmen was a 12 issue comic book limited series released from 1986-1987 that received critical acclaim upon its release.
It was the first comic book to be seen by mainstream audiences as a legitimate story which dealt with several serious topics and themes. This wasn’t any sort of picture book you buy for your kid. This was for adults.
Of course, there have been other works that portrayed political and philosophical ideologies, but this was something people outside the comic book fandom actually acknowledged and appreciated for the first time ever.
Fun fact: Watchmen is included in Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Works Ever Made. That’s a list including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm and so on. That’s how good this novel was.
It was an era of comic books where the storyline became darker and grittier. The two most revered comic books of all time, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were made in this era.
Comic book writers still look to these graphic novels for inspiration. But many did not understand the real reason why Watchmen was so successful. It wasn’t the dark tone or the mature characters. It was the story. The way Moore shapes the narrative, by evaluating the human psyche with the use of so many different characters. Characters who portrayed the best and worst of mankind.
In 2009, Zack Snyder decided to have a go at this complex work of art.
As with most Zack Snyder movies, the movie was received with extremely, and I mean EXTREMELY, polarizing reviews. It was either a boring movie with little to no action, which completely butchered the source material; or it was an underrated masterpiece which would be celebrated years later. That debate still continues, a decade later.
It is a dystopian world where Richard Nixon gets elected for a third term. The USA wins the war in Vietnam with the help of Doctor Manhattan, the most powerful being in existence, who can bend space, matter and time to his will. Watchmen begins with the murder of The Comedian. A government-sanctioned vigilante/superhero in his 60s, police are baffled at how a man like Edward Blake (The Comedian’s real name), a guy built like a tank, could be thrown out through plate glass.
Meanwhile, Rorschach, another vigilante (not very mentally stable) investigates his former colleague’s murder and starts to believe that there is a plot to murder costumed vigilantes. He goes on to warn his former compatriots who were once known as The Watchmen; Nite Owl/Dan Drieberg, his former partner; Ozymandias/Adrian Viedt, the smartest man in the world; Dr. Manhattan/Jon Osterman; and his lover Silk Spectre/Laurie Jupiter, Manhattan’s only remaining link to humanity. What follows is a web of lies, treachery and murder in a bid to save humanity from Armageddon.
Now, the reason why the graphic novel is regarded so highly is because of its extensive look on each character; as well as their backgrounds which have been laid out so clearly, it gives us more scope to understand the psyche of each character. To emulate and portray so much complex emotion in one film was no easy task.
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was not perfect, let me tell you. But it gave us a near-perfect portrayal of the source material, told in his own signature style.
I’m a huge fan of Snyder’s work. 300, Man of Steel and yes, I’ll say this with my head held high, Batman v Superman. I love his style and the way he portrays violence. But maybe that was one thing he may have gotten wrong with Watchmen. Like most writers, he only took the source material at face value. But what Moore was trying to tell us was, simultaneously, in the most simple and most complex of terms, that violence was bad.
Snyder keeps the source material on a pedestal and tries to recreate Dave Gibbons’ beautiful artwork in his own style. Which gave us, the people who read the comic book, immense amount of joy. But was that why so many people hated it? Zack Snyder is like most of us. A comic-book nerd who wishes to see the hundreds of panels so stylishly drawn played out EXACTLY as it is on the big screen. Moore gave us so many characters with rich backstories, which would shape their decisions as the story progressed.
Snyder seemed to keep most of his (and our) attention on Rorschach and The Comedian. The book had entire issues dedicated to Dr. Manhattan, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias (who deserved a more comprehensive look), Nite Owl and so on. We get to know all about Rorschach and The Comedian (two of my most favourite characters, by the way). They even give a brief look at Dr. Manhattan’s origins. That montage still remains one of my favourite sequences in cinema. But it didn’t give us the whole schtick. What goes on in the mind of the most powerful being in existence, a figure who can also hold the title of God?
I understand that there were too many elements to focus on. That’s the degree of complexity the story possesses. But in the end, Snyder, like an edgy teen, decided to focus on what he thought was cool. Say what you will about the movie, it looked beautiful. Snyder even takes out the exact same lines from the panels into his movie, most notably Rorschach’s grim narration that he writes in his diary. The characters in this movie are nowhere close to being saints. They balance ever-so-delicately on the scales of being a saint and being the Devil. It’s all open to interpretation.
What Snyder did, instead of focusing on the various themes of the movie, was turn it into an action film. One drawback, I felt about the movie, was lack of perspective into the life and mind of Adrien Viedt/Ozymandias. In the book, his decisions and ideals are picked apart every which way by Alan Moore. But Snyder paints him as a bad guy looking to destroy the world.
Honestly, there was a part of me that thought what he did was wrong, from a personal POV, but at the same time, the other part thought it was necessary.
Despite its many flaws in relation to the source material, it ranks as one of my all-time favourite movies. Definitely Top 5. What Watchmen lacked in terms of perspective and world-building, it compensated with many absolutely fantastic sequences. The intro, which played Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times, They Are A-Changin” gave us a look at the Minutemen, that Manhattan origin sequence; even the scene with Dan and Laurie making love in their ship, to the tune of ‘Hallelujah’. Great soundtrack.
The endings as well as the original climaxes were changed by Snyder. Instead of using a giant squid-like monster that destroyed half of New York and led world governments to believe that it was an alien invasion, Viedt let out EMP atom bombs in several major cities, destroying millions. I was fine with that change.
The reactors all shared the same energy signature as Dr. Manhattan, so when Ozymandias forced them all to meltdown, the energy signature of Manhattan was read. Every world government instantly turned on Manhattan, effectively ending the threat of nuclear war because now they had a common enemy; Dr. Manhattan. agreed that this plan was for the best to ensure lasting peace and leaves Earth for another galaxy, allowing the peace to exist.
In the end, Watchmen, either the book or the movie simply doesn’t warrant a simple read/watch. The story is so complex and vast that discussing each of its varying political, religious or philosophical ideologies would take days to fully dissect. And despite the shortcomings of the movie in failing to completely dissect said topics, making a perfect rendition of the novel would simply be impossible.
But the fact that Zack Snyder pulled off something like this, with the limited frame he had, was absoutely brilliant. It may not be perfect, but it looks damn fine. Great acting, great action sequences, great soundtrack, GREAT cinematography and of course, great directing. Superhero movie or not, this movie will, one day, be regarded as a classic, like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
This movie will hold a special place in the hearts of comic book fans. It certainly does in mine.
Let’s hope Damien Lindelof’s TV Show lives up to expectations.
By Aditya Sarma
I'm an engineering graduate trying to make the most out of what life throws at me. Currently working as a Brand Strategist at Mitsogo Inc, Chennai. Outside work, you can find me on a football pitch, a basketball court, or in front of a tea stall - still trying to make the most out of what I get.