Watchmen: Initial Thoughts

The long awaited movie adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic graphic novel Watchmen has finally arrived. It has certainly been a long time coming – my first post on the subject was over 7 years ago, and at that point, the movie had already been stuck in development hell for 15 years, with no realistic prospects… The project went from director to director (including the likes of Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky) until 2007, shortly after the surprisingly profitable premiere of another graphic novel adaptation, 300, when Warner Brothers tapped director Zack Snyder to direct the forthcoming Watchmen. There was some apprehension to the selection of Snyder for this, and he certainly hadn’t demonstrated the sort of heft that Watchmen would require, but I was glad the movie was being made.

I just got home from the theater, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. What follows may turn out to be a rambling mess and I’m sure that my feelings about the film will solidify as time goes on, but for now, I’d like to write my initial impressions. I’ll try to be mostly spoiler free, though I’m going to write some stuff in the extended entry that will contain spoilers.

The writer of the original comic book is Alan Moore, and he has repeatedly disavowed any of the attempts to adapt his work. I think this quote from an EW interview is the key to how I feel about the Watchmen movie:

There are things that we did with Watchmen that could only work in a comic, and were indeed designed to show off things that other media can’t.

Indeed, many have claimed Watchmen was an unfilmable work, citing the long history of failed productions as evidence. Throughout the years, several strategies were considered. Terry Gilliam wanted to create a monsterous 12 hour epic. Paul Greengrass wanted to update the story to directly address the war on terror (as opposed to the graphic novel’s Cold War), a direction I’m convinced would have been disasterous. Ultimately, the man who was chosen to direct had a pretty simple strategy: remain religiously faithful to the original work.

I think it’s an admirable strategy, but there are some things that just don’t work (like when he changed the story). In particular, some of the dialogue in the film isn’t so great. Ironically, many of these are direct quotes from the novel… but what works on the page doesn’t necessarily translate well to the screen. There is a melodramatic tone that fits the comic perfectly, while it just sorta floats off the screen and hangs there in a film. On the other hand, some of the dialogue works well. For instance, when Rorschach growls his “You’re trapped in here with me.” line (one of my favorites from the novel – and while I’m talking about him, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorshach is fantastic, better than I expected and perhaps the standout of the film), the theater erupted into something that was a mixture between a cheer and nervous laughter (which was perfect). Most of Dr. Manhattan’s dialogue was suitably incongruous, and the Comedian worked well too. But when the Dreiberg Night Owl whines “What happened to the American dream?” or when a news anchor says “The superman exists and he’s American,” it just doesn’t work.

In the end, I’m not sure anyone could do much better in adapting this comic book into a movie… Snyder got more right than I thought he was capable of… and I’m not sure a better adaptation would be possible. I reread most of the graphic novel this past week, and one of the things that struck me was how many parallel threads Moore and Gibbons were working with, and the techniques they used to illustrate those parallel tracks. For instance, the Tales of the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic is a microcosm of the whole story, and Moore and Gibbons cross cut between that and the events of the story to great effect. That almost certainly would not have worked in movie form, so I’m glad that Snyder didn’t include it (though apparently he did do something that will be released separately). That was one of two big changes in the adaptation, and I think the movie is better for that change. But Snyder does make effective use of cross cutting in several cases (aligning with the cross cutting used in the novel), and the editing in the Dr. Manhattan origin story was much better than I was expecting.

Which brings me to the other major change – the ending. I don’t understand why so many adaptations opt to change the ending, especially adaptations that are really attempting to be faithful to the source material. The new ending is basically an attempt to replicate the same outcome of the book without using the same catalyst. The result is the same, but the method is different. I think it just barely works, but I still don’t see the need for it (a more spoiler-laden discussion of this will be in the extended entry). I think it was an unnecessary change and while I was willing to accept it and go with it, I’m positive that many fans of the comic will dislike the new ending.

So I think the movie is good, maybe even great, but not perfect and not a classic. It gets a lot of things right – more than I would have thought possible… and while that’s actually quite impressive, it’s perhaps not enough. It’s cliche to say that the book is better than the movie, but that’s only because it’s mostly true, and this adaptation is no different. My initial take on it is that it’s a solid *** (three out of 4 stars) movie. I look forward to the extended cut of the film, but ultimately, I don’t see that changing my overall feelings.

Update: Alex didn’t think the ending worked at all and MGK thought the whole thing sucked. And this is everywhere, but Saturday Morning Watchmen is brilliant.

Update 3.10.09: Nerdquest comments. We have similar overall views, though we differ on some of the details. He doesn’t seem to like the music, which I admit could be a bit much…

Here be the spoilers:

So, the ending. In the comic, a Giant Squid is dropped on New York, instantly killing millions with some sort of psychic ability. The event is made to look like an alien attack, which results in America and the Soviets uniting against a new enemy. Ozymandias/Veidt orchestrated the whole thing, and has to live with what he did, even if he believes it was for the best. This is a drastic simplification of what happens, but it’s the basic idea.

Before I move on to the ending of the film, I want to backtrack a bit and talk about one of the scripts not used in this new adaptation. It was one of the first scripts produced. Written by Sam Hamm and dated 1989, the script was pretty faithful right up until the ending. Ozymandias/Veidt figures out time travel and parallel universes, and after examination, he realizes that the only timelines where the human race survives are the ones where Dr. Manhattan never existed. So he attempts to change the past by assassinating Osterman before he becomes Dr. Manhattan. I did not like this ending at all, as it pretty much undermines the rest of the story.

Now, the new movie’s ending attempts to retain the spirit of the original comic, but it also sorta has elements of the Hamm ending (I doubt anyone was intentionally trying to use the Hamm ending, but there are similarities). In the original comic, there is a subplot about how Dr. Manhattan and Veidt collaborated to create widespread and cheap electric cars. It’s not a tremendously important development in the book, but the new movie tries to elevate that portion of the story (perhaps in an effort to make the movie more relevant to our present day situation). Dr. Manhattan and Veidt haven’t completed anything – they’re working on a general power source. “Free power” that will rid us of our dependance on oil. However, Veidt had an ulterior motive for this new energy source. He creates several generators, and then uses them to detonate nuclear explosions in several American cities. Because the technology is based on Dr. Manhattan, the conclusion that officials come to is that Dr. Manhattan blew up the cities. So America and the Soviets unite against a new enemy, and the Cold War crisis is averted. Manhattan leaves for another galaxy, just like in the comic.

Does this work? I guess (barely), but I find it uncessesary and there are probably more plot holes that I’m not thinking of at the moment. It’s much better than the Hamm ending, at least, but I don’t understand the desire to besmirch Dr. Manhattan’s name. I find the irony in the “free energy” angle interesting. All the talk about creating free energy and ridding ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels was just a way to fool everyone. I suppose the one main argument for not doing the giant squid ending is that, you know, it’s a giant freakin squid. It might look stupid. I haven’t reread the last couple chapters of Watchmen yet, but I just scanned through it. Most of what you see are mounds of dead, bloody bodies along with a tentacle. The main portion of the squid is shown in one full page panel and I think it’s also shown in a painting or a TV monitor at one point. I think it could have worked fine, but that’s just me.

7 thoughts on “Watchmen: Initial Thoughts”

  1. Spoiler town: the whole besmirching of Manhattan’s name is playing into the “God” thing. If you guys are going to go nuclear on each other, he’s going to go old testament on them.

    That’s the thing they were going for, but I prefer the squid. Removing the island removes a lot of the sense.

  2. This is what I get for writing at 1 am. I think the reason they went for besmirching Manhattan’s name was similar to the reason Hamm wrote about the time travel assassination. Watchmen is something of an alternate history story, and the thing that changed everything was Manhattan.

    I was listening to the Filmcouch podcast, and one of the hosts mentioned the Phillip Glass score being played during Manhattan’s origin story. The score was originally from Koyaanisqatsi (the Hopi Indian word for “Life Out of Balance”). This made the ending click a little more for me, because Manhattan tipped the balance of power in the world and despite everything seeming to go well for America (i.e. winning the Vietnam war, etc…), it also set us on a path to nuclear war. So besmirching his name is kinda trying to reverse that trend.

    I still like the giant squid myself and don’t find this necessary, but it still (kinda) works.

  3. Having not read the graphic novel yet, I wonder if that’s something that significantly hampered my appreciation for the film. I went to see the film with a bunch of people who had read it and while we agreed on a lot of the film’s flaws, I think I’m the only one of the group that actually didn’t like the movie. The plot struck me as pretty weak and I actually would rather have seen all the backstories expanded into a proper film than the mid-life crisis superhero reunion. I thought there were a lot of interesting concepts but the execution didn’t do much for me.

    I do still want to read the graphic novel and probably will soon. I’m guessing a lot of things, including (as you mentioned) the dialogue, will work better in that format. This may be a case where the film’s own faithfulness to its source material worked against it. Personally, if some dialogue works in a graphic novel but not in a film, I’d rather see the film change the dialogue to something that works better in its medium.

  4. I also saw it tonight, without having read the graphic novel. I enjoyed it, though it felt clunky overall. The tone and overall atmosphere was excellent, as were the many allusions throughout to other stuff, at least half of which I must have missed or not understood.

    I’m very curious to read the original now.

  5. Spoilers, obviously:

    Interesting. I think I’m an anomaly, in that I really think the film ending works better than the comic ending would have.

    I think that there are a lot of benefits to the film ending:

    1. The new ending doesn’t introduce new elements that need more exposition and explanation late in the movie, instead relying on facts and elements that have been present all along. The public are already wary of Doc in that they think he’s caused the people closest to him cancer, the government has psyche evals warning them that he could lose his connection to humanity if his lover leaves him, he’s had a bit of a breakdown on live television, and it provides a real reason for Doc to leave.

    2. I think that the new ending is is a lot more “believable” on film than the giant squid would have been. This is obvious subjective, but I think that “Giant squid invaders from beyond!” wouldn’t work as well on the big screen, and I think that it would seem a little too cliche, in some ways. I know that the film takes place in a world with a naked blue guy who can create duplicates of himself, but I just don’t think that “psychic squid monster drives everybody crazy” has the same impact as “everyone thinks the weird blue guy blue a bunch of things up”.

    3. Lastly, the new ending actually gives more reason for the whole world to come together. The original ending has Ozy sending one fake monster to New York, where people are supposed to believe it tried to invade, but died, driving everyone crazy. But, really… that’s one city. The Doc ending has him blowing up cities all over the globe, making people think that he’s punishing them. A global attack, I think, works better.

    My beef with the ending was only that we didn’t get a chance to really see Ozy going back and forth about the choice he’s had to make–we don’t see any of the regret or insecurity that he expresses to Doc during the last conversation.

    Overall, I was very pleased with it, but there were definitely flaws. Too much slo-mo used indiscriminately, and a little too much brutality in the ally fight–Dan is supposed to be the one who is the most reserved about the violence they do, but he breaks a guy’s arm so bad the bone shoots out? Really? Ozy being far to broadcast as “the villain” (also, why wasn’t his costume purple? The whole point of the purple in the Pyramid logos and his suit and everything was that his *COSTUME* is purple).

    I just couldn’t help thinking, at the end, that if they’d cut down on some of the scenes and the slo-mo, they could have hit a few more of the scenes that would have added emotional impact.

    Still, I actually thought it was pretty good, and now I’ve posted an essay to your site. Hooray!

  6. Spoilers

    I pretty much agree with Roy. When I finished the book, I wasn’t happy with the giant squid thing. Not because it sounds ridiculous (and looked kind of silly), but because I doubt people would believe that a squid, albeit a very large one, is an alien. If scientists in the Watchmen world are capable of genetic engineering, then surely they would try to look at the “alien” squid’s essential building blocks and realize that it is of this Earth.

    The movie’s alteration makes more sense. I completely understand the screenwriter’s/filmmakers’ desire to place the blame on Dr. Manhattan. Think, if someone like that really existed, wouldn’t we all fear him? Could we truly trust him? I bet some people would worship him, would think he is the Second Coming or something similar.

    I mean, even if we go back to the giant, psychically-exploding squid, I would go more believing that to be the result of intentional or accidental teleportation via Dr. Manhattan’s actions, than I would believe the creature to be an alien.

    At first I didn’t like that the movie had many cities experiencing great destruction and death vs the book’s, comparatively, measly 3 million deaths. It seemed like senseless death for the sake of making a bigger impact on a movie-viewing audience (as if 3 million dead NYers isn’t horrifying enough, especially after 9/11).

    But Roy makes a very good point about the plausibility of unification. If the movie made it so that only one city was attacked by Dr. Manhattan, then Russia et al could have realistically said, “Too bad, so sad, you brought it on yourself. Now excuse us while we go conquer the rest of the world.” But by spreading the hurt around, people around the globe truly had something with which to mourn together.

    One beef I had with the movie overall is that I think the Mask-Killer plot was very subdued. In the book, it is well kept in focus and sets up a nice mystery. Even though I had quickly predicted Ozymandias as the killer, I still enjoyed the aura of mystery and suspense that the other Watchmen were experiencing.

    My husband, who hadn’t read the book but saw the movie with me, says he didn’t think the quest to find the murderer was a big part of the plot. I do understand why the filmmakers would enlarge and focus on the nuclear war angle, but I still think that the movie just doesn’t have that special something, that essence of the graphic novel that I’m not sure I can describe.

    Overall though, I enjoyed the movie. I may have laughed a bit too much. There weren’t many other people in the theater, and I seemed to be the only one laughing at the song that played when Dan and Laurie were getting it on. I can see why people wouldn’t like the music selections, but I figured many of them were intended to be a bit of comic relief, what with all the bone-snapping and head-cleaving going on.

  7. Sorry for not responding before now. Ok, so after some time, I’m perhaps a little more comfortable with the movie’s ending. I’m not convinced that it’s better or even necessary, but it does work.

    I think one thing that’s interesting about the ending of Watchmen (the comic book) is that it’s pretty clear that Veidt’s plan could still backfire. The whole Rorschach diary subplot implies this in both the movie and the book (of course, it’s being published in the New Frontiersman, so it probably wouldn’t… but you never know). I don’t remember enough about what Manhattan said in the movie, but I got the impression in the book that he was very non-committal. It’s clear that Veidt’s plan being exposed would be a bad thing, but it’s not clear that his plan wouldn’t be exposed in the end. On the other hand, in the words of Manhattan:

    “In the end”? NOTHING ends, Adrian. Nothing EVER ends.


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