Watchmen is a comic book adaptation set in a alternate reality where world history has turned out differently than in our own. Many of the heroes in this film are as bad as or worse than the criminals they protect society from. These heroes are broken, conflicted, damaged individuals, either by their long careers of fighting crime or from personality flaws they brought to the table at the outset. Superhero in Watchmen can easily be construed as an acronym for human being. In most popcorn superhero films, events within the film break over and around the superhero like creamy ocean water against a rocky bank before reseeding again e.g. Spiderman and Superman. In Watchmen, the wave of blood and violence soaks into the fibers of its superheroes, including sociopath Watchmen Rorschach / Walter Korvach (Jackie Earle Haley), misanthrope Watchmen The Comedian / Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and former Watchmen Silk Spectre I / Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino). Incidents in the past shape the superhero of the present. This is true of The Dark Knight, Hancock, Darkman, etc. Instead of forging an impeccable, infallible symbol of law, order and righteousness; this gutter overflow in New York City corrupts its bearers, their view of the world and its inhabitants, even though their occupation is bringing lawbreakers to justice. “What happened to us? What happened to the American Dream?”, Nite Owl II / Daniel Dreiberg (Patrick Wilson) asks. The Comedian responds: “What happened to the American Dream? It came true. You’re looking at it.”
The Comedian was not referring to the riot he had just dispersed with his shot gun and grenade launcher, he was speaking of America as a country. Second, he was alluding to absolute power, the kind he possessed (or thought he possessed) and America’s. Because of Dr. Manhattan / Dr. Jon Osterman (Billy Crudup)’s presence, America had become hegemony. The American government had grown dependent on Dr. Manhattan, the threat of his infinite abilities against foreign powers and what he could do for the country. Even with his infinite abilities, making him in many respects like Leto Atreides II in Dune: God Emperor, Dr. Manhattan had not succeeded in pacifying the known universe. The threat of nuclear holocaust was ever present. Third, The Comedian is also referring to other superheroes. They act as though they are above the law because in many respects they are. They get away with terrible acts. Nite Owl I / Hollis Mason (Stephen McHattie) referred to this in his book “Under the Hood” as The Age of the Superhero or something to that effect after Dr. Manhattan splatters a trio of Wise Guys in front of their squeezes. Instead of this age being one of light, it is one of escalating darkness with severe social consequences.
Though Watchmen is first about discovering who killed The Comedian and later about unraveling a larger conspiracy behind a masked killer plot, the film is foremost about the people involved and whom The Comedian’s death directly and indirectly affects. The most prominent individual amongst this group is Rorschach, the sole person from the Watchmen team motivated to investigate The Comedian’s death. “An attack against one of us is an attack against all of us,” Rorschach says while trying to recruit Nite Owl II to the cause. This coercion is necessary because The Comedian was not liked by most people because of certain antisocial personality traits and events in the past. It is Rorschach, arguably the most twisted Watchmen next to The Comedian, who propels the case forward. There is an old saying: “When you dance with the devil, you don’t change the devil, the devil changes you.” When applied to Rorschach, this is true to a devastating degree as the viewer bares witness to it in a flashback scene involving a kidnapped girl and a psychopath. Though the scene was not translated in its entirety from its source material, the adaptation served the same commencement purpose.
When looked upon as a comic book adaptation, Watchmen is probably one of the finest, visually, completely eclipsing the Spiderman franchise, X-Men 1, X-Men 3, Daredevil, Elektra, The Punisher films and a host of others. There is something to be said about the way Ang Lee’s Hulk is edited. To date, the viewer most-likely has not seen a film edited more like a comic book than that film.
Editorial presentation aside, the “Nostalgia” of the Watchmen heritage was captured with exceptional care in Watchmen. You need only view the film decadent opening credit sequence, created by yU+Co and accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are A-Changin”, for credence to this statement. Watchmen has hands down the best opening montage the viewer may have ever seen for a superhero movie and for that matter any movie. Snyder uses his camera to capture iconic images from Alan Moore’s 12-part comic series but also, by accident or ingenious design, the comic book industry’s past as well. Comic book and superhero film fans will be enthralled by what they see during this section of the film. You are not just seeing the roots of the current Watchmen team, the Minutemen, but the foundation of the comic book industry during the era of the Watchmen’s original publication. It is in the costumes they are wearing, the way the shots are framed, and how those shots are slowly animated. It is in these moments, at the very inception of the story and film, that Zack Snyder demonstrates the depths of his directorial prowess, talent and that the film that follows will be visually appealing. Speaking of visual appeal, no confrontation in Watchmen has a better mise en scène than the one at the beginning of the film involving The Comedian and his shrouded assailant. Once it is concluded, the socio-political issues of the 1960’s through the 1980’s are front and center in Watchmen, creating its back drop, historical references and subtext. Of particular note is the threat of nuclear war and M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction), a lingering and inciting situation that becomes integral to the plot of the film.
Watchmen will inevitably be compared to The Dark Knight because of the overt and subtle pains taken to make both films as reality-based as possible within their divergent universes. Both films delve into the inner workings of their characters but The Dark Knight’s tone never deviates as it does in Watchmen (the sex scene within Owl ship Archie) here and there. Also, the characters, whether villain and hero in The Dark Knight, are not imbued with abilities they did not possess in their comic books. Actually, Bruce Wayne is less intelligent than in the comic book. In Watchmen, characters are abnormally resilient for ordinary human beings and some seem to be in possession of Blonsky’s Super Soldier Serum or Bane’s Venom.
If you have read the Watchmen 12-issue comic book series you know that none of the superheroes, save for Dr. Manhattan, have superpowers. In the film, Watchmen Ozymandias / Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode) has no visible muscle development once-so-ever (save for a muscle-molded rubber suit) yet is able to achieve feats of strength that his lanky, thin body could not possibly accomplish. Then there is the jumping and the uncanny ability for a Watchmen to get up after getting kicked into inanimate objects, thrown onto the floor or pummeled in the face and body as though they had only been ever-so-gently swatted with flowers. They do not walk with a limp afterward, hold their ribs, nothing. Very strange since none of them have accelerated healing or invulnerability. This is not Watchmen as originally intended by its creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. This is turning Watchmen from a reality-based work of fiction into an unrealistic cartoon and even worse, something we have seen before.
Of all the questions raised about and during Watchmen, the most pertinent is the one literally spray-painted in the background of the film: “Who watches the Watchmen? This question can be approached both figuratively and literally within Snyder’s Watchmen. Figuratively, it is only the Watchmen’s consciences that act as their moral compass. This is an extreme problem since some of the Watchmen’s consciences have been significantly warped. Approached from the literal standpoint, the Watchmen act with impunity. They are at the top of the food chain. They have no oversight and in the film, virtually no one to answer to. If you have seen Serpico, you know what can happen when authority is not monitored and regulated in some way.
Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is an ambitious film that had big shoes to fill in the wake of The Dark Knight and the great 12-comic Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons created. In many ways, Watchmen will meet expectations fans of the comic books will bring with them into film. Concessions and modifications were made from the source material of Watchmen, as in any adaptation for written word to the screen. In the coming age of realistic super-hero films, Watchmen is at the near top.