"Watchmen" was, at one point, the most famous graphic novel of all time. It took 30 years to make it to the big screen. Now, we look back on the film and look forward toward what's to come.
Zach Snyder's Watchmen came during a flurry of "gritty" comic book movies. It was the anti-hero film with dark themes, adult situations, and moral complexity. It asked a lot of the questions we had been pondering while watching the senseless violence that dominated many of the blockbusters of then and now.
But how does Watchmen feel now that we're a viewing audience guided by the moral subjectivity of the Avengers? Watchmen is set in a parallel-1985, in which heroes existed before the U.S. government banned them. In the opening scene, one of the ex-superheroes is murdered, and a former member of his team decides he’s going to solve the crime.
Today we'll look at how Watchmen holds up a decade after it debuted on the big screen. And we'll look toward the next iteration of Watchmen gracing our small screens soon.
How did Watchmen become a movie?
After development hell, a failed Terry Gilliam adaptation, and sitting in stasis, Watchmen burst onto screens in 2009. Both Paul Greengrass and Darren Aronofsky were attached at one point, too, so it kind of seemed out of the blue that Zach Snyder would emerge as the director of choice. But Snyder had been paving his way since the Dawn of the Dead remake. He had a good reputation for turning small budgets into big payoffs. And he and his wife had become power producers after 300's insane box office take.
Snyder wanted to make a superhero film and set his eyes on the graphic novel people called "unfilmable."
With a production budget of around 130 million, and maybe another 60 in advertisements, the movie scrapes by, earning $185,258,983 worldwide, after opening at just over $55 million in its first weekend.
How does Watchmen hold up?
Visually, I think Watchmen exceeds all expectations. There are direct panels that appear ripped from the comic and thrust onto the screen. Even though there are a lot of Snyder haters out there, I don't think any of them can attack his style with merit. He's almost the definition of a pulp auteur. From his slow motion to his heightened CGI-worlds, he has a distinct look and feel to all his projects.
Watching it today, it's hard to believe these special effects are not from the modern era. It's a beautiful movie that has frames that could be paintings.
Cinematographer Larry Fong and director Zack Snyder reteam to bring the epic graphic novel Watchmen to the big screen. And it took a ton of effort. Fong told American Cinematographer:
“So many locations had some kind of poster, photo or newspaper clipping in the background. I started to shoot that material, but it became a massive undertaking, so our set photographer, Clay Enos, ended up shooting most of it.”
Watchmen's production was as big as the comic. The production called for the construction of some 150 sets. The largest by far was the New York City exterior, built near Canadian Motion Picture Park Studios outside of Vancouver. As far as lighting all these sets, Fong stated, “We tried to make as much of the city light itself as possible,” he says, noting that Snyder suggested Taxi Driver (1976) as a reference. “When you’re shooting at night in a real city, you’re usually trying to take away all the weird colors and the multiple shadows to make your shots look beautiful and controlled. In order to make this look real, I decided to keep it raw.”
So in terms of cinematography, yes, Watchmen holds up.
One thing I think he does better than most filmmakers is a montage. And Watchmen has one of the most beautiful montages of all time. It reminds me of the Harry Potter moving images in the Daily Prophet. It makes the world come to reality and steeps us in world-building. Even people who haven't read the comic understand where the story is at once it begins.
But what about the heart of Watchmen?
That's where Snyder's version gets a little muddled. While the original comic was a dressing down of government failings, masculine bravado, nuclear armament, and violence, Snyder's version never quite captures the hallmarks. My main issue is the violence. While Dr. Manhattan of the comics abhors violence and the inhumanity of war, the movie glorifies the badassery.
The violence in the movie version always feels heroic. Even when they're in Vietnam, Manhattan killing people and the Comedian shooting his pregnant love-interest still feels weirdly justified. There, the story misses that second level of complexity. The comic was written to take these thoughts and feelings seriously, but Snyder goes the extra mile and makes it into a Sirkian melodrama. At times, I relish it.
I have to admit I find the entire Nite Owl storyline incredible. And I think there are honor and grace in Rorshach.
But I have serious problems with the movie's treatment of women, especially when it comes to their sexuality. While in the comic, the plotlines of rape, prostitution, and Dr. Manhattan's lack of understanding all feel dated, the movie leans into these pieces without updating or tweaking the tone-deaf parts. Or just shoot and treat them with nuance instead of forcing us to conform to the original versions of them.
I don't think they should have been censored, but it would have been interesting to see Silk Spectre II actually talk about her feelings of lust and pleasure with Dr. Manhattan instead of storming out. There are lots of missed opportunities there. And having the culmination of this be a sex scene with Nite Owl feels both against character and missing the opportunity for something intimate and sweet. AKA the exact thing she'd been denied by Dr. Manhattan...
As Jim Vorel states in Paste Magazine:
"Instead of the comic’s immediate post-sex discussion, where Nite Owl and Spectre display disarming honesty about themselves, the film simply segues directly into plot. It can’t help but make the sex act feel completely cheap and perfunctory."
Does Watchmen stick the landing (of the Octopus)?
Working with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, Snyder worked to adapt Watchmen into an ending that he felt fit more with what had been set up with the characters. At the end of the original comic, Adrian Veidt tries to avert a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union by dropping a huge squid on Manhattan and killing thousands, which unites the world against feared alien invaders and calms troubles amongst ourselves.
In the movie, Veidt builds a machine that imitates the powers of Dr. Manhattan which sets off an atom-bomb-like explosion and unites the world against Dr. Manhattan.
This was a controversial choice. And I think I like it. I love how it keeps the story centered on heroes and their place in the world. By Making Dr. Manhattan the villain, humanity was no longer picking apart each other. It's almost as if they let their racist and xenophobic tendencies save themselves, by placing them not on fellow humans but directing them toward metahumans.
Here's a more in-depth excerpt of why it was changed from a podcast interview with the screenwriters as covered by First Showing:
"It takes a lot of setup to introduce an interdimensional space squid, it just does…You can't just say, oh there it is, and look, there's my squid… The difference between the novel and the movie, and this is the real difference, is, we don't have the appendices afterwords. And the whole thing with that storyline is all set up in the Wizard magazine, the stories about the comic book, and it's also set up in Tales of the Black Freighter, to a certain extent - there's stuff about the secret island, these artists…That's all stuff that I would have to spend screen time explaining at the end of a movie where I've already spent two hours explain a lot. Clearly, the movie does not shy away from piling information on top of you. But I felt that that was going to come out of nowhere."
"For all of the infinite possibilities of film, I believe, you have to be very circumspect about the number of magical things that happen in your movie." Hayter tangents onto X-Men and the mutant gene briefly, then continues. "You have Dr. Manhattan, who was your element of magic in the story, and then you have the squid, who came out of another dimension and could cast psychic waves of destruction, and that seemed like an extra bit of magic that came in at the end, and needs a lot of setup to justify it. So, it became obvious that if you use Dr. Manhattan, well, it's already set up, and he is the force, and he is the outside threat that has been throwing the whole world into chaos anyways, he has thrown off history. So in the end, it seemed to make sense."
Watchmen is coming to HBO
I think we can agree that although I have a more generous and fond love of the movie than most, So what's next for Watchmen? Well, it's not TV...it's HBO. HBO's television adaptation is shepherded forward by Lost and The Leftovers mastermind Damon Lindelof. He's also my personal writing hero but that probably doesn't matter to you.
In his statement about why Watchmen and why now, Lindelof said, "What we think about superheroes is wrong...I love the Marvel movies, we saw Justice League, and I'm all for Wonder Woman and Batman and I grew up on these characters, I love these characters. But we should not trust people who put on masks and say that they are looking out for us. If you hide your face, you are up to no good."
The show features an all-star cast headlined by Regina King and Jeremy Irons, and Jean Smart. Lindelof has stated his vision of Watchmen will honor and take place within the universe established by the graphic novel, without remaking it outright. That feels like the best version of an adaptation. you don't have to honor the opus and you can play with the tones and the themes.
This is how HBO puts it:
"Based on the Alan Moore graphic novel, Watchmen is set in an alternate history where “superheroes” are treated as outlaws. And while Lindelof (The Leftovers) plans to embrace the nostalgia of the original groundbreaking graphic novel, the series will also attempt to break new ground of its own. He announced his intentions earlier this spring on Instagram."
Another reason to get excited, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross will be creating the original music for the series.
What's next? What if Blade saved Marvel?
Marvel's 22 films have comprised one of the most successful franchises ever. We give a lot of credit to Iron Man for making it happen, but what if it was actually "Blade"? It's hard to believe, but DC Comics ruled the box office for much of the 20th Century. But it squandered all the good hope Batman and Superman movies had with Batman & Robin. Things were dismal for superheroes at the box office and no one expected Marvel to make any splashes. Their only foray into the fray, Howard the Duck, wasn't just a flop, it put the entire company on ice. The studio was bankrupt. It was licensing characters. They needed a bailout.
Enter Blade, a movie no one cared about. Click the link to read more!