Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is widely regarded as one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. Along with several other seminal works of the 1980s, it helped to change the way comic books were made and read. (Whether that is a good thing or not has been the subject of much debate.)
Now, after more than 20 years in “development hell,” we have a Wtachmen film courtesy of 300 director Zack Snyder. Expectations were all over the place for this film, especially considering Hollywood’s spotty record when it comes to comic book adaptations, especially those of Alan Moore books (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen being the worst offender).
So how is the film? Coming in as a long-time fan of the comic, I find it… okay. Not the groundbreaking genre changer that the book was, but the book was published twenty years ago. The modern superhero, and to a lesser degree the modern superhero film, already have what Watchmen the book originally introduced into the superhero narrative: moral ambiguity.
This moral ambiguity is both Watchmen‘s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. There is none of the black-and-white common to the Silver Age superhero, and the one character who does see things in black-and-white terms is severely psychologically damaged. The story asks large moral questions and then refuses to answer them, and doesn’t allow the audience to simply latch onto one character’s answer because every character is deeply flawed.
Since superhero films usually lag behind superhero comics by twenty years or so, these are elements that are only just making it into superhero films like The Dark Knight – and even that ambiguous film had heroes whose intentions were clearly good, and a villain who embraced a clearly evil philosophy. Without getting into spoilers, Watchmen thoroughly deconstructs its heroes’ motivations along with those of its villain(s).
On the one hand, this provides a lot of material to think and talk about, but it also hurts Watchmen because it becomes a story about people dressing up as superheroes, rather than a story about superheroes. The only person with real superpowers is in many ways the least powerful because his psychology prevents him from taking any action that he isn’t pushed towards by others. All the other “heroes” are just people working out their issues by donning costumes and “beating up pimps and purse-snatchers.” The only person trying to better the world is the villain.
After over four hundred words it may seem that I have only described the book rather than the film, but that’s because the film is basically an abridged version of the book. It has been billed as the most faithful book-to-film adaptation imaginable, and for the most part it is. This is good in that the characters and themes are kept intact, but bad in that for a fan of the book the film is actually rather boring. With an adaptation of a novel, there are endless decisions the filmmaker has to make, but Snyder repeatedly made the same decision over and over in Watchmen: “Duplicate this panel.”
Nonetheless, I am curious to see what effect Watchmen will have on the genre. As much as it has dominated comics for almost twenty years, comics are a niche medium, and already more people have seen Watchmen the film than ever read Watchmen the book. The question is, what will they take away from it?