By Matthew Walker
March 9, 2009 - No one knew what to expect when Watchmen released among the comic shops over twenty years ago. It was something that just didn't happen, a comic book that pushed the envelope beyond the standard superhero vs. arch-villain dynamic. Instead, Watchmen focused on the development of the characters rather than epic battles. It also delved deep into the reader's mind for their own understanding of the human psyche. These reasons are probably why many psychology instructors have their students read Watchmen as a requirement. It is also probably one of the reasons that, over the last twenty plus years, so many directors have passed on the opportunity to bring Watchmen to life on the big screen. In fact, it has been called the "Unadaptable Movie" for most of its "production life."
That's all changed now. After director Zack Snyder adapted Frank Miller's "300" a couple of years ago, many fans started to believe some of their beloved comics could finally be realized on the big screen. Most fans knew that Zack Snyder would eventually be attached to a film they had longed for. Many began thinking it was going to be Watchmen. So much so, in fact, many just waited for the announcement of Zack Snyder directing the screenplay adaptation by David Hayter - yes, Solid Snake - and Alex Tse. In trailer after trailer, the movie continued to look better and better to fans of the graphic novel. However, non-fans questioned just why they should care about the film and what the hell was it about?
Watchmen takes place in a fictitious world set in the year 1985. In this world, "superheroes" live among us and Nixon is still president of the United States. Most of the heroes are retired due to the Keene Act which outlawed superheroes. The movie opens with a look at the underlying backdrop of the story - nuclear holocaust. The mentality of the eighties had everyone in fear of the Russians and their arsenal of nuclear warheads. The focal point of the main story, though, is the murder of The Comedian - Edward Blake. Rorschach begins investigating and believes there's a "mask killer" out there. This sets the pace of the film. However, the movie's not completely about the murder or the impending nuclear threat. At the heart of it, Watchmen is about the character development. Are these, in fact, superheroes or are they just people with mental and social disorders? Moreover, why should we even care about them?
Rorschach, the protagonist, is a perfect example. One point in the film involves Rorschach's psyche evaluation session. It is only here that you notice what is truly going on in his head. Aside from his mental instability, many will find themselves relating to Rorschach. He's brutal and violent, but underneath all of the mental scarring, he holds true to his convictions of a black and white world. Nite Owl suffers from social anxiety and insecurity. His life was in the costume and now that is all gone, and he doesn't know what kind of man he is outside the mask. Silk Spectre II has her own insecurities. Most of these come from her own mother pushing her into filling her old stockings and superhero persona. It's a complicated balance between what is right and wrong when it comes to parenting. Dr. Manhattan, the only one with actual super powers, is losing touch with his own mortality, trying to find meaning in the world when he experiences the past, present, and future all at the same time. The Comedian functions as the poster child of America. He gets the world, he's seen the evils of everyone, he's done most of the evils himself, but in the end, through it all, the regrets he has outweigh his cynical outlook on the world and he finally gets the joke that his entire career exemplifies. Finally, there's Ozymandias, a philanthropist that outed himself as a "superhero" before the Keene Act took place. He's called the smartest man alive by most, but according to Rorschach, he's a sell out for making money on the heroics of his masked career. These rich characters come together in ways that are meaningful to fans and the uninitiated alike.
Many have proclaimed "The Dark Knight" to be the best comic book movie ever. I will agree with that statement in the sense that, in terms of a comic book based in the real world, "The Dark Knight" nailed it. However, comics were never about the real world, they used elements of the real world and helped some cope with a world they didn't know how to deal with. My biggest complaint about all of the comic book movies has always been the fact that they aren't faithful to the source material. Watchmen is literally the best adaptation to ever grace the big screen. Regrettably though, that is both its undoing and its greatest achievement.
For the most part, you can flip page for page of the graphic novel and watch the film in unison. There are noticeable removals, but none harm the film. There are also a few minor variances that fans will notice. Even these don't muddle up the experience. The major problem with this movie being so accurate is when the diehard fans watch the film the initial "WOW" factor may become stale, since you know everything going on. It will become a quiet game amongst fans watching the film to see if they can find the small differences in the movie compared to the graphic novel.