And Now, A Review of Watchmen That Will Not Mention The Big Blue Penis.
(Ooops. I Just Ruined That, Didn't I?)
Watchmen: The Graphic Novel versus the Movie
There are two ways for a fan to watch a movie based on a comic book.
The first is to be there in line three days before it opens, dressed in homemade
tights that have been let out over the years as your gut has grown more prodigious,
ready to be bedazzled and bewondered and discuss the differences between the
source material and the adaptation for ages. The second is to determine that "It will
ruin my favorite graphic novel because it doesn't include the abusive father/giant
squid/mustache" and stay far far away, almost as far away as you stay from real
Okay, so I went the second route. But only for a week before I broke down.
I was eighteen when Watchmen the comic blew me away. Middle-class Americans
are raised on superheroes along with our chicken-and-cream-of-chicken-casserole.
We are all quite familiar with superhero morality. Growing up, I knew for a fact
that there was Big Huge Good and Big Huge Evil and they fought, and though the
waters might have been muddied a bit, the meaning of what was Good and what
was Evil could always be found out.
Watchmen was the first thing I read that really made me rethink that assumption.
Without giving too much away, the plot hinges on "heroes" committing
monstrously evil acts in the name of the greater good.
Each page of the comic is saturated with this theme of disturbed morality, not least
because author Alan Moore, the Warlock Lord of comics, was absolutely obsessive
in his detailed script, and artist Dave Gibbons and colorist John Higgins were
Their characters are indulgent fetishists, violent psychopaths, megalomaniacs, even
an unrepentant rapist, yet they are all superheroes serving the idea of the Greater
The people on the street display typical inhumanity at the same time they
demonstrate surprising warmth, their lives rendered in detailed simplicity to
contrast the larger-than-life heroes.
There is even a parallel story -- a pirate comic about losing one's soul -- that
turns the story of the superheroes into a parable, also acknowledging this ambitious
work's roots in a bastard art form.
Rorschach's overdramatic poetic ramblings make a subtle counterpoint to the
minimalism of his nemesis Ozymandias. Dr. Manhattan's inability to conceptualize
time or humanity counters Nite Owl and Silk Spectre's all-too-human captivity to
their superhero fetish.
Alan Moore writes supplementary material for each chapter, from the wonderful
fake memoir of the original Nite Owl to the faux-academic prose of Nite Owl II's
submission to an ornithological journal. It is overflowing with detail, yet somehow
not a word is wasted.
Even the colors are deliberately secondary -- brown and purple and orange and
pink, under a sickly yellow that saturates the world.
Read it huddled where no one will find you, in one sitting. You will come out truly
moved, truly horrified, and full of such raw storytelling power, on so many levels,
that you will be sure that Alan Moore actually has cast a spell on you.
And the movie?
In short, the movie won't do that.
To be fair, it was pretty much defeated from the start. Most of what made the
comic brilliant -- the obsessive detail, repeating themes, and multiple storylines --
had to be cut, leaving only the superhero storyline. The superhero storyline is
good. It's the main plot of the comic, after all. But when you get down to it, the
superhero story is only the plot, with enough detail about the characters to get you
The characters' roots in other superheroes show. In fact, the origin of Moore's
story was in a series of heroes bought by DC from Charlton Comics, but when DC
decided to use the heroes differently, Moore created analogues for them -- the
nuclear-powered Captain Atom became Dr. Manhatten, the technologically
augmented Blue Beetle got a dose of Batman and became Nite Owl, the
uncompromising investigator the Question became Rorschach, the mystical
martial-arts master Thunderbolt became Ozymandias, the international policeman
Peacemaker became the Comedian, and the femme fatale Nightshade became Silk
I prefer the characters in Watchmen to the Charlton comics characters -- there's a
lot more cool things an artist can do with that Rorschach blot -- but they are still
archetypes. And those archetypes are just not that interesting without everything
else Moore piled into his story to augment the plot.
Plus, in the 80s, it was shocking to see nasty things that you have not seen
superheroes do before. Now, of course, we are all-too familiar with the psycho
avenger of justice -- a third incarnation of the Punisher actually beat Watchmen to
Yet even without four-fifths of the story, with the archetypes and the jaded
superhero clichés working against him, Zack Snyder still tries to slavishly adapt
the book, with as few changes as possible. Moore's flashbacks, which worked
quite well in the individual character studies that permeated Watchmen, slow the
movie incredibly in its first half. Dialogue straight from the comic often works, but
often it just falls flat, designed to be read instead of heard. Moloch's line: "You
know the kind of cancer you eventually get better from? Well, that ain't the kind of
cancer I got," worked great in a two-panel setup and punchline in the comic. In the
movie it dies in Matt Frewer's mouth despite his best efforts.
There are moments where Snyder, like an overexcited kid, destroys the subtlety at
the heart of the comic. He glorifies the gore, as opposed to the dark realism of
Dave Gibbons' simple artwork, as in the scene where Snydar has an inmate saw off
a fellow inmate's arms instead of the simple, vicious stabbing in the book. Or the
ridiculous sex scene, as opposed, again, to Dave Gibbons' minimalist naked
(And of course, there's the pound of latex that Snyder slapped on his Richard
Nixon actor and called a fake nose. I think a bird could roost on that thing.)
The most glaring example of a change -- Silk Spectre and Nite Owl's relationship
-- is also the most grating. One of the deservedly criticized aspects of Watchmen
in both incarnations is the passivity of the female characters. Silk Spectre the
Younger, in both movie and comic, serves mostly as a foil for Nite Owl and Dr.
Manhattan, while her mother gets the not-so-coveted role of bearing a child by her
rapist, whom she has convinced herself she has forgiven.
But while they may have been passive plot devices in the comic, they were
interesting passive plot devices.
Snyder turns Laurie Juspeczyck from a coy, flirtatious vixen into a milky-pure,
passive grope-doll without even the illusion of independence. In the comic, Silk
Spectre seduces Nite Owl with what is basically an open frontal attack -- she grabs
his glasses and jokes, "Let's do something with that stupid hair," and then jumps
on him, clearly hungry for human contact and human lust after the coldness of a
life with the superhuman Dr. Manhattan.
In the movie, she sits down and breathily whispers, "Jon sees a lot of things, but he
doesn't see me. Not like you do."
I'm sorry, is this Watchmen or Dawson's Creek?
Her relationship with Nite Owl becomes painfully by-the-numbers "romantic." She
has no other aggressiveness allowed her, save a few lame fight scenes. She doesn't
even smoke -- a good analogue in the comic for her addiction to super-heroing
despite her loathing of it. Malin Ackerman's performance is truly painful, but in
her defense, the script totally destroyed the character, leaving her only shreds.
On the other hand, Snyder, with the incredible actor Jackie Earl Haley, nails the
psychopath Rorschach, the character who is most in love with his vision of extreme
violence as a solution to the world's problems.
It is telling that the bits that Snyder adds to Rorschach's part actually work right
along with the comic, including a beautifully psychopathic moment where he tears
into his prison psychiatrist's office demanding, "Where's My Face?" referring to
Snyder seems to understand, at least a little, what can make a film work. The
opening credits, where he had to present his own version of Watchmen history for
the audience's benefit, and the brilliant interpretation of Rorschach given by the
spot-on casting of Haley, prove that. But he is defeated by his own clumsiness, his
own reverence and his self-confessed weakness for violence and sex. It's like
giving a gourmet recipe to a fry cook.
It is conceivable that some director out there could have made a truer version of
Watchmen -- at least a version that felt truer. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings
adapted an-almost-as-unfilmable book. But Jackson got it in a way Snyder doesn't.
Jackson knew that Tolkien was trying to capture the spirit of works like The Battle
of Maldon or Beowulf -- works both long and full of longing, in a high voice that
recalled a more noble time. But to make a film of such a thing, Jackson couldn't do
Anglo-Saxon poetry unless he wanted to give the audience a three-hour nap.
So he went to the more noble age of filmmaking, and thus we get epic swordfights,
dashing rescues, and simultaneous love and hate for the misshapen monsters.
Jackson's Ring is more reminiscent of the best adventure movies of the 30s and
40s than it is of epics in Old English. And he knew it had to be so.
Yet, in Snyder's defense, it's hard to imagine a filmmaker who could work with
Watchmen. Moore admits freely to writing his comics for the medium and the
medium only. Watchmen works because it is a comic, talking about ideas that
prevail through the comic medium. The dialogue works brilliantly on the page. The
flashbacks suit the episodic format.
To go back to my earlier analogy, that gourmet recipe given to the fry cook is also
a recipe that has defeated many better chefs.
P.S. In the hype around Watchmen, there's been a lot of talk about "best graphic
novel of all time." It's certainly one of the best, but anyone who goes to the comic
expecting the best story ever told with words and pictures will be disappointed.
What they really mean is the best superhero story of all time. There is no real "best
graphic novel of all time," but if I were to put my money on one, I would choose
Maus, Art Spiegelman's humane masterpiece about the Holocaust and the trauma
of survival. Read Watchmen only with other superhero comics in mind.
Okay, so next issue is the Secret Invasion/Final Crisis faceoff. I mean it this time.
Also, since I'm in the mood, the battle of Greatest Superhero Movie of All Time.
Read more by Spencer Ellsworth