For a fictional work that is incredibly complex, it seems kind of apt that the journey of Watchmen to the big screen should in itself have been complex. In fact, in the space of a decade, there’s something strange in that not only is a Watchmen movie celebrating ten years since its premiere but that in that very same a year a television series based on it would be premiering on HBO.
To call Watchmen’s journey to the silver screen torturous would be an understatement. First published in 1986, written by famed comics auteur Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen was an instant critical and commercial success, and in the thirty-three years since its debut has only seen its reputation increase and is now not only regarded as a great work of the medium of comic books and graphic novels but as a legitimately great work of literature.
Despite the dense nature of the work, and complex narrative structure of Moore’s writing, Hollywood was eager to make a film version almost right away. Over the years producers such as Joel Silver, screenwriters like Batman’s Sam Hamm and directors such as Terry Gilliam and Paul Greengrass were attached. In fact, a version directed by Greengrass in the mid-2000s came very close to actually being filmed before being shut down practically at the last minute.
When Watchmen made it to cinema screens it would do so under the eye of Zack Snyder who had wowed audiences with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, itself a work of comic literature that many considered unfilmable, while his feature directorial debut had been a remake of George Romero’s iconic Dawn of the Dead, a remake that turned out to be surprisingly effective and one of the better remakes of iconic 70’s horror titles to emerge during the early to mid-2000s.
As good as Dawn of the Dead was, it was 300 that would cement the Snyder style and which he would also bring to his live-action interpretation of Watchmen; hyper-stylised action and evocative visuals that made it looks as if he had simply brought the comic book panels to life, along with an incredibly stylish washed out look, all things he would bring to subsequent projects such as Sucker Punch and his controversial takes on the DC Comics universe, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the latter of which tried to bring a deconstructive tone, similar to Moore’ work here, to characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, unsurprisingly to a polarized and divided response from critics and audiences.
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For a work of comics literature that was had been given the label of ‘unfilmable’, Snyder, working from a screenplay by David Hayter, who had been involved in putting together a filmable script for X-Men to the big screen in 2000, and Alex Tse, decided to take the approach of literally translating many of the panels of the comic to the screen, with visuals and shots in the film instantly recalling the framing from the book itself.
Being a Snyder film, and coming from a director with a distinctive visual style, it also meant that the resulting film would be full of the director’s touches such slow motion that returns to normal speed in the space of the same shot, along with touches that he had never utilised before, such as using an eclectic soundtrack of songs throughout certain moments, the most powerful of which would be the use of Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A’ Changin in the film’s superlative credit sequence which firmly establishes the alternate timeline that the film takes place within.
The cast would be made up established and respected actors as opposed to any major stars dominating, with the likes of Patrick Wilson, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman, Jackie Earl Haley and Matthew Goode. For the most part, the film would stick very closely to Moore’s story, but would make alterations to the climax, a controversial decision with many, but which was taken upon screenwriter Alex Tse and director Snyder in order to make the film work better in their point of view.
The film in the end, creatively and artistically, works for the most part. Although there are minor flaws dotted throughout, and there is always the potential problem that Snyder’s stylised direction threatens to overwhelm the story and narrative, which is daringly complex in a manner that does well by Moore’s work, not that he would ever watch it, having vowed to never watch an adaptation of his work, the film would prove to be nothing if not enjoyable, with an adaptation the comic’s dark tone and 80’s setting proving especially provocative.
Released in 2009 and just before the onslaught of comic and superhero adaptations (it did after all make its way to audiences a few months after the double whammy of the first instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the shape of Iron Man and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and it’s incredibly gritty interpretation of the Batman/Joker antagonism and the downfall of Harvey Dent), it also came out just before the more increasingly proliferation of PG-13/12A rated films which would see the majority of such films be made for a family friendly audience.
Watchmen is unapologetic in its approach to being a film for adults. Sure, the characters may feel like they’re satirical takes on the likes of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Iron Man an even The Question, but the world of Moore and Gibbons and Snyder’s film of is clearly one that earns its 18 rating. Sometimes the attempt to make the film adult in tone is dreadfully unsubtle; the use of gore is way over the top at times, while a sex scene between Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre (Malin Ackerman) nearly borders on laughable due to not only its use of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ over the soundtrack but the use of a flame thrower on the Nite Owl’s ship Archie as an orgasm metaphor.
Despite the flaws, it’s hard not to enjoy the film once it gets its claws into you. Despite the lack of subtleties, the film’s urges to play more towards adults and a grown-up audience makes it feels increasingly refreshing in the ten years since its debut, especially given the sale of Marvel to Disney and the increasingly family-friendly nature of the MCU. There’s a deep irony as well to be had that Warner Bros. turned to Snyder to help steer their attempt at an MCU style universe with their DC characters but which eventually gave way to the more comic book and family friendly likes of the recent Aquaman.
Not that there is anything wrong with that approach, but rewatching Watchmen in light of it being a ten-year-old film makes you realise just how much santised the genre has become with the onslaught of billion-dollar grosses and the involvement of major conglomerates and public owned studios and their bosses. Which to complain about the recent films in light of reviewing this film is deeply ironic given that it came from Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures and would be directed by someone who would help establish new interpretations of Superman, Batman, help get Wonder Woman on to the big screen, as well as cast Jason Momoa as Aquaman, the star of the recent billion-dollar grossing film of the same name.
Maybe that’s a part of the legacy of this film that cannot help but make it a wonderful part of the superheroic cinematic heritage; it’s a film that attempts to satirise a genre that was on the cusp of dominating the output of several major film studios, including one involved in the production of this film, from a medium and art form that was about to become a kind of research and development for the next decade of Hollywood blockbuster. The comic on which it was based was in itself turning a satirical eye to comics and the period of time in which it was published, but the film was almost satirising a genre that was about to become a massive fabric of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.
Released into cinemas with a polarizing reaction from fans of the book as well as from critics and audiences, the film became a love it or hate it test for everyone, inspiring admiration from some and indifference from others. The film premiered with a 162 minute run time, but when the film made its debut on DVD and Blu-Ray it did so with an extended version that ran to 186 minutes, and then eventually in a version that ran to 215 minutes that saw the inclusion of Tales of the Black Freighter, an animated version of a comic book tale that ran within the comic book of Watchmen itself.
The fact that such alternative versions of the film are on the market says a lot about how much work went into bringing as complete a live action version of the comic to the screen. Even taken into account the flaws with the film and the split reaction, it still to this day remains one of the most bravely complex works in superhero cinema. While not every decision here is a success, there is still something about the film and its daring attitude to bringing one of the comic medium’s most complex works to the screen that makes its existence somewhat wonderful, especially in light of the difficulties it took to get there under the eyes of other directors in the past.
With its dazzling visuals that are stunning and fiercely committed performances throughout, especially from Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Billy Crudup, not to mention an attitude to bringing the book to the screen as intact a way as possible (alternative ending aside), there’s a nobility to the film that has allowed it to remain a flawed crown jewel in the pantheon of comic book cinema.
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