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Thursday 19 March 2009


I have to confess that I'm not a lifelong Watchmen fan. My comics tastes always veered more towards the big-titted, latex-clad hyperbole of mainstream Marvel or DC. Watchmen and its ilk always seemed a bit... intense. Nevertheless, when the hype machine cranked up in anticipation of the film adaptation a few months ago I dutifully picked up a copy of the graphic novel and dived in. I was, predictably, blown away. There's little wonder that Watchmen is often held up as an example of high art, a pinnacle of graphic storytelling and is even included in Time's Top 100 Books list.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached the film.

Watchmen is a strange story, very much a product of its time. Set in the mid-80s, at the height of the cold war in the middle of a nuclear stand-off between the US and Russia, it tells the tale of a world where costumed superheroes are common-place. The genius of it is that the heroes (the Watchmen of the title) have no powers, they're simply masked vigilantes and villains. All except Dr. Manhattan, a physicist-turned-blue-demigod. Manhattan's limitless control over energy and matter acts as a deterrent, keeping the Soviet union in check.

The presence of Dr. Manhattan has changed the world in many respects - his involvement in Vietnam led to the Vietnamese surrender within days, and his knowledge of materials and energy have given the world new technologies. Meanwhile, world opinion has turned on the costumed heroes and, through an act of government, sent most of them into hiding. Only Rorschach, the iconic black and white masked vigilante, and Comedian, the morally questionable government operative, remain active. Like the book, the film opens with the death of the Comedian...

The first thing to applaud the film for is how it has resisted the temptation to update the setting. I expect a number of Hollywood whoremasters would have pressed very hard to replace Cold War with "War On Terror" and move it forward to the far more aesthetically pleasing 21st century. Kudos then to Zack Snyder for sticking to his guns and insisting on remaining faithful to the source. In fact, Snyder's direction rarely deviates from the storyboard of the original. Many scenes are word-for-word dialogue copies of the comics, with many scenes even shot from the same angle. It's clear that Snyder is a massive fan of the original (similar to his adaptation of Frank Miller's 300).

His slavish devotion to the source is also evident in his casting of the main characters. There isn't a single big name actor in the whole film, nobody you'd recognise, and this has left Snyder free to find perfect matches for each part. I defy anyone to question the casting of Rorschach, an actor seemingly born to play one role only - Walter Kovacs. Similarly, The Comedian, Night Owl and Silk Spectre are very well cast and the combination of actor and CGI make Dr. Manhattan just the right combination of the human and the miraculous.

Aesthetically, the film is a masterpiece - every scene drips with details from the comic book - the newspaper vendor and Black Freighter comic book reader (an excised subplot) appear in one or two panning shots, Snyder reminding the audience that they are there, if not fully realised; the Rorschach interview scene (an entire issue in the original) remains intact and complete and magnificent and Snyder somehow manages to make unpowered, costumed vigilantes seem believable and not ridiculous (more a testament to the original, where the actual costumed parts are sparingly used).

Okay, so some parts of the story have been cut, necessary to retain at least a semblance of brevity: a large part of the Holis Mason subplot is left out (which has impacts on the development of the Night Owl character), the aforementioned Black Freighter doesn't even get a mention, save for brief glances of the comic reader, and the ending deviates massively (in detail if not in spirit) from the original. That said, I think I actually preferred the ending of the film to the ending of the book - it seemed somehow less random, more tightly plotted. I think the giant squid of the original would have simply confused and lengthened the film.

And at 2:45, the film is already long enough for the average movie-goer. But for someone with an interest in the original, 2:45 seemed almost too short. With every scene packing in as much visual detail as reasonably possible, I felt that it could have gone on for another hour and I still would have felt it too short.

Sure, there were flaws - some characters suffered from the removed or shortened storylines - the Silk Spectre/Comedian plot seemed rushed, almost forgotten. And what was happening with Nixon's nose? Overall though, I don't think you could reasonably expect to see a better adaptation of Watchmen. Hopefully a director's cut will see some elements restored, but even without them what is left is a faithful, loving and visually staggering rendition of a classic.


  1. I haven't read the comics, but I loved the film. I too heard from other comic fans that the ending was actually better in the film.

    I just loved the intensity, darkness and gratifying violence. The sex appeal aspect was the clincher. SSII... What a hotty.

  2. I've just finished reading the graphic novel, in preparation for seeing the film at the IMAX tomorrow; 'incredible' doesn't even begin to describe.

    Even though it was somewhat verbose at times, and very convoluted for the medium of comics, it is without a doubt one of the finest pieces of storytelling I've ever seen. Can't wait to see the film to contrast and compare. Even at 2h45m, I don't think they'll be able to fit everything in... time will tell.

  3. The Mason story and the pirate story have been released on DVD and blu ray, and I recon those who've not read the comic and are complaining about a lack of depth to the story should watch those first.

    Can't see it here, not at my cinema, bah!

  4. Saw the movie last night with a friend of mine.
    I havent read the source, but luckely read Docs blog first.
    I thought it was very very good. Impressed with the way of story telling, the going back and forth in the timeline without it becoming confusing or annoying.
    I agree that the relationship between the comedian and silk spectre wasnt compleet. You just know that a lot more has happend between the two. But then you could feel there was a lot more going on with the caracters then was shown. The hints, the suggestions... even without having read the original.
    I was a tad dissapointed with the scene on Mars between Miss Jupiter and Dr. Manhattan. I just felt there was a scene missing somehow when trying to portray the strength of love in the relationship between Jupiter and Manhattan. And its effect on Manhattan.
    Special effects on Manhattan were fantastic.
    The caracters were very well done, you got a feel and a little insight in all of them. You can even understand Manhattans point of view on humanity.

    Cinematically I loved the shots, the details and the slowmotion action. The action scenes were great and old fashion goosebumbs for me when seeing Miss Jupiter in action, kicking ass.
    The lines and postures of the caracters, especially Veint was almost unreal, too perfect and gave it a real comicbook feel.

    After suggesting to go see the Watchmen to a male friend of mine i got the respons 'most women i know wouldnt want to watch something like this'. My respons was 'Do you even know what you are in for?'
    Turns out my friend wasnt really prepared on this kind of movie, even when I explained upfront not to expect anything like Batman or the X-Men....
    Glad I knew and I have loved every second of it. Focussed for the whole 2h and 45 min.... but frankly for me it was enough. I couldnt have gone another hour like the Doc. I am still running the scenes in my head. Ill probably watch it again in about a month. And discover a lot more in every scene, cause i just know i couldnt have seen it all.