Dr. Manhattan is in need of a miracle. Cursed by his own near-omnipotence, he explains to his ex-girlfriend and fellow (albeit mortal) crime fighter Laurie Juspeczyk that the only thing that can surprise him anymore is a “miracle” so unlikely that it would be like oxygen transmuting to gold. Impossible as such a miracle may sound, Dr. Manhattan need look no further than the confines of his own film. After more than 20 years, multiple attached directors (including Terry Gilliam and Darren Aronofsky), and countless rewrites and recasts, Watchmen has finally made its way to a theater near you. And flawed though Zack Snyder’s film may inevitably be, Watchmen has emerged from its long and winding journey from graphic novel to big screen an impressively faithful and surprisingly watchable final product.
Hailed as a watershed moment in the transition from pulp “comic books” to mature, high-culture aspirant “graphic novels,” Alan Moore’s 12-issue Watchmen series was remarkable for both its subject matter and its structure. Moore proposed an alternate history in which costumed heroes were once legal and prevalent in the United States. After a retired hero is murdered, one of his former colleagues begins investigating a potential masked hero killer amid an escalating threat of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The novel fluctuates between multiple plotlines, narrative voices, and texts such as simulated autobiographies and scenes from a pirate comic within the comic that mirror events in the main plot. For its multilayered complexity, Moore’s work has long been considered an essentially “unfilmable” narrative.
Of course, a Hollywood film will fail to encompass all that. Even at over two and a half hours, Watchmen will leave those who have read the novel counting the themes and plotlines that were omitted. Snyder and screenwriter Alex Tse (working from a draft by David Hayter, among others) predictably draw from the novel’s central framework, following the mask-killer conspiracy thread straight through with few digressions. Snyder’s Watchmen omits many of the peripheral characters and multiple texts that lend Moore’s novel such richness, including the comic-within-a-comic motif. A particularly unfortunate thematic omission is Moore’s running commentary on the media’s relation to peoples’ thoughts and fears. It is one of the most lastingly topical themes in the book and could have been the site of some fascinating metatextual play in a cinematic version of Watchmen.
Yet the ideas and characters that do make it to the screen are lovingly and thoroughly presented. Through several key flashbacks (and some admittedly trite expository dialogue), Snyder and Tse comprehensively flesh out the backstories of the film’s protagonists, providing glimpses into the minds of the kind of people who would choose to don a mask and fight crime. Viewers not familiar with the graphic novel will still leave the film questioning the use of the term “hero” to describe a brutal fascist like Rorschach or a repressed fanboy like Dan Dreiberg. The streamlined plot forces Tse to restructure the story’s conclusion, but he does so in such a way that preserves the subversive spirit of the novel’s dénouement. Warner Bros. and Snyder deserve special praise for maintaining the Cold War setting of the novel and letting the issue of global paranoia in an age of violent international conflict speak for itself rather than attempting to graft explicitly contemporary issues like Islamic terrorism onto the film’s plot (I’m looking at you, V for Vendetta).
To the eyes and ears, Snyder’s work pays grim tribute to the vision and pulse of Moore’s work. Snyder employs the stylized, slow-motion technique that dominated 300 with greater discretion here, exhibiting restraint during the film’s prolonged scenes of dialogue. The stylized action sequences he does incorporate effectively fuse graphic novel pacing and rhythms with 21st-century special effects. Alex McDowell’s production design is suitably dark and gritty, and Michael Wilkinson’s costumes are right on the money (even maintaining Dr. Manhattan’s naked Vitruvian Man look). A Watchmen film is by nature an ensemble piece, and Snyder does well to avoid casting famous faces only to hide them behind masks. Billy Crudup as glowing blue godlike Dr. Manhattan, Patrick Wilson as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl, and Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach are pitch perfect in evoking their characters’ quirks and flaws. Malin Akerman, unfortunately, struggles as Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre, her unconvincing delivery failing to enliven what is already the film’s flattest main character.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film is that it has been introduced into mainstream cinema at all. Snyder’s gorgeous visual work would not have been possible without a major studio budget, and the viewing experience certainly benefits from a big-screen presentation with state of the art surround sound. Yet the insatiable 20-year drive to contain Moore’s novel within a two- to three-hour major motion picture is symptomatic of a system that sought above all else to capitalize on the commercial prospects of a cherished cultural phenomenon. In thematic terms, this project would have fared better as an HBO miniseries, serialized in six or twelve parts. This would have allowed the director to dip in and out of the novel’s various texts and give the myriad peripheral characters depth rather than cameos, but, of course, that would not have generated box office revenue or merchandising potential.
That said, it is a miracle that a director with such tangibly immense personal investment in the source material found himself in the right place at the right time to save this project from production hell. It is a miracle that production did not go forward with David Hayter’s original script, which updated the tale to modern times. And it is a miracle that some questionable casting choices fell through over the years (Keanu Reeves as Dr. Manhattan?). This film, in this form, at this time, is born of the unlikeliest set of coincidences in recent Hollywood memory. And it’s probably as good as anyone could have hoped.