With a running time of 163 minutes, watching Watchmen seems like hard work. Billed as the work of ‘visionary director Zack Snyder’, who made the jump from music video to film with an episodically likeable but unnecessary remake of Dawn of the Dead in 2004 (1), Watchmen has been set up as a movie of big ideas to match the lengthy duration.
It is adapted from the ‘graphic novel’ of the same name, first published as a series of 12 comics, starting in 1986. Various collected editions have remained in print ever since, while a hardcore of dedicated fans act as a priestly caste around the sacred object of ‘the original’. The comic also influenced mainstream entertainment, from its iconic revision of the Smiley Face design, which popped up across the rave scene in the ‘second summer of love’, to its indirect influence on TV shows such as NBC’s Heroes.
Comic and movie alike violate many of the norms of the superhero genre. There are barely any costumed villians, and only one character with clear-cut superpowers, Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup). The masked avengers spend a lot of time despairing about the state of the world, while the action sequences – revealed here in brutal slow motion – break bones as an expression of underlying sexual desires.
In comic and film, such events form a narrative that kicks off in the 1930s and runs for some 50 years, creating an alternative US history in which the acceptance and rejection of costumed crimefighters, including the godlike Dr Manhattan, constitutes the major historical events. Manhattan keeps the Cold War cold, although the bulk of the story takes place against a backdrop of Soviet belligerence under Leonid Brezhnev, who seems less intimidated by the ultimate deterrent.
The 1985 part of the story is structured around a murder mystery, when the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) – based initially on the mainstream comics character Peacemaker – is thrown from his penthouse window after a brutal beating. Masked vigilante Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) sets about warning his former Watchmen colleagues, a line-up that conforms to the familiar types found in comic books: the playboy millionaire, the reclusive inventor, a flying ‘Owlmobile’ (nicknamed Archie), and so on.
As the mystery unfolds, the surviving heroes join forces and uncover a big conspiracy which, needless to say, starts to look like an inside job. As the officially disbanded Watchmen start to regroup (and disintegrate almost as fast), Cold War tensions ratchet up and the world hovers on the brink of nuclear war; it was written in the real 1985, after all.
In terms of plot detail, there’s a lot more going on than my summary suggests. The sheer volume of Watchmen factoids fuels the issue of whether the film can overcome the tensions between commercial and critical success – or, at least, keep enough fans of the source material onside. The weekend box-office takings suggest the film is a good earner, while at the time of writing Internet Movie Database users have voted it the 178th greatest movie of all time, a ‘chart position’ that will no doubt rise over time. The Smiley Face design, which Watchmen borrowed from the 1970s and passed on to the rave scene, could be ubiquitous once more.
The story has been stuck for years in development hell with at least a decade of failed attempts at adapting it for the screen (2). Having finally got it to screen, it was pleasing to see that the filmmakers stuck by the original content, even if the inevitable 18 certificate meant kissing goodbye to lucrative merchandising and action figure opportunities.
What has been really strange is the way that much of the film’s history of pre-production and production has been public knowledge. It’s as if the Hollywood dream factory has acquired glass walls. Whereas a discussion of how to handle full-frontal superhero nudity – the well-endowed Dr Manhattan – is a guaranteed giggle, knowing the extent of co-creator Alan Moore’s rage at the film industry and the payments made between studios to settle rights issues is a bit excessive.
This obsession with detail is entirely consistent with the internet-driven tyranny of fandom over the sci-fi and superhero genres (3). Paradoxically, the same cultish dynamic that encourages producers to transfer such material to film can also strangle an adaptation at birth once the bad word-of-mouth starts to circulate online.
For instance, the sectional, socially marginal concern with whether a fictional character’s costume is being done properly can snowball into a rumour that the film is terrible in next to no time. Try an internet search for ‘bat-suit’ and ‘nipples’ and you’ll find 60,000 indications of this. As it happens, the rumours were correct on that one: Batman & Robin is a terrible film. With that kind of interest, there was a lot at stake for all concerned with Watchmen.
One factor in keeping the fanboys and the viewing public onside is innovation in CGI, reinforced by convincing green-screen techniques and falling costs. The older the superhero movie, more likely that is was reliant on visual effects, captured on camera while filming. Prosthetics, wires and back projection help to account for why so much looks unconvincing: Allen Coulter’s Hollywoodland (2006) shows how the childish Superman shorts of the 1950s were almost as dangerous to film as they were unconvincing to watch.
Present-day techniques allow even the most hackish directors to concoct plausible fictional realms, provided they delegate to competent production designers and art directors. And herein lies the great strength of Watchmen – it looks terrific. Modern techniques allow for the movie to be assembled as a like-for-like live-action version of the comic on which it’s based.